Hearing Highlights Ab-Only Industry In Peril

William Smith

Both the members of Congress and the lone public health researcher who spoke in support of abstinence-only at the recent Congressional hearing were scrambling for evidence.

Last Wednesday, Congress held the first ever oversight hearing on the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry. It's about time. These programs have been around for over a quarter century and consumed nearly $2 billion in federal and state tax dollars. After all the grousing about the bias of the hearing from the right wingers who support the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, one might ask: If the programs are so great, why did the Republicans never hold similar hearings to champion their success? The answer: It would have been laughable.

And so it was last week when one lone researcher working from his home-based "institute" tried to outwit the major public health institutions of our country. By his own words, Stan Weed, the only witness last week suggested by the Republican minority to scientifically defend the Bush administration's funneling of billions to their favored kin, has spent more than 20 years working on these issues, interviewed more than 500,000 teens, and studied more than 100 abstinence-only programs. Okay, it sounds impressive, right? Until you learn, that after all that bluster, Weed has just one – ONE – peer reviewed and published study in a refereed journal showing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs can have a modest impact among seventh graders in delaying sex. And with that, Weed urged – straight-faced – to continue the gravy train that is the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry.

It should also be noted that Weed's guest on his back-up chair while testifying was not an assistant at his "institute" or some other public health professional. It was the head of the National Abstinence Education Association, the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry's lobbying arm, Valerie Huber. For what purpose did the researcher need the hired gun lobbyist at his side? Her presence stretched the credibility of Weed's objectivity, to say the least.

On the side of public health evidence, however, were the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the Society for Adolescent Medicine and many others. All concurred that more than a decade worth of research demonstrates that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not working and a change in course is long overdue.

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The clear imbalance left some right-wing Congressional Members scrambling during the hearing.

Representative Mark Souder (R-IN), one of the most extreme right wing lawmakers in the Congress, praised Weed – the man with thread-bare credentials who works out of his home – as the lone voice of sound public health in the room. As for the real luminaries at the witness table with Weed, Souder charged all of them with advancing ideological positions. He might as well have decried the entire thing a vast left wing conspiracy among the protectors of our public health and left the room.

Representative John Duncan, a Republican from Tennessee, said it was "rather elitist" that those with public health degrees thought they knew better than parents what type of sex education works. Well, yes, Mr. Duncan, isn't that why we fund and support public health as a vocation – to assist individuals, parents and families in promoting good health practices? And isn't this why the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on which you sit, has jurisdiction over health programs and spending? The entire purpose is to consult those who actually "know" in order to arrive at informed decisions instead of opinions formulated from ignorance. One can reject their findings – as Mr. Duncan did – but it ought to be done honestly and with full confession for a "science-be-damned" mentality.

Duncan and Souder however, were left with little else to rely on. The evidence is in and the programs were finally called to account for the boon they've experienced at the taxpayer's expense. In desperate times, people do desperate things and Duncan and Souder were headed down that sad road.

For those present at the hearing, there was no more desperate a sign of the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry's questionable future than Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector's attempts at spin. Rector, credited as the architect of the state grants through Title V to pay for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, tried valiantly to stave off the hearing's impact. The day prior, he and another colleague at Heritage, attempted some up-front spin by assembling and regurgitating previous so-called "evidence" to support their position. At the close of the hearing, a crest-fallen and clearly annoyed Rector was observed to be expressing his deep displeasure to Representative Souder for apparently failing to carry the Heritage Foundation's banner. It almost made me feel sorry for Souder. Almost. Perhaps I actually would have if Souder had not earlier told the two youth witnesses on the panel – one of whom acquired HIV due to abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction – that they were irrelevant to the purpose of the hearing. Far from laughable, this was downright appalling.

What was most miraculous at the hearing was just how much had been conceded by the supporters of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Next week, I'll be writing about this in terms of the key pieces of good news that emerged from the Congressional hearing and will answer the most consistent question I've gotten since the hearing: So what does this mean? I assure you, it was a lot more than just words that came out of last week.

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