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Abstaining from Facts 

by Cara Gardner


Can an abortion lead to suicide? Does it put you at a greater risk for breast cancer? If you have sex when you're 14, are you more likely to develop cervical cancer than if you wait until you're older? Medical professionals may be astonished to have to respond to these questions, as the answer to all of them is an unequivocal "no." But students throughout America are being taught these and other inaccurate medical claims in abstinence-education programs funded with public money, according to a recent report commissioned by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). The report found that 11 out of 13 commonly used abstinence education programs dispense inaccurate medical information regarding sexuality and gender differences, contraceptive effectiveness and sexual health. "Something is seriously wrong when federal tax dollars are being used to mislead kids about basic health facts," Waxman said in a press statement about his report.


LeAnn Benn is director of a Spokane chapter of Teen-Aid, an abstinence education program funded with federal dollars. The program uses the Me, My World, My Future curriculum -- one of the programs the Waxman report claims uses inaccurate medical information.


"We had our chance for a rebuttal [to the report], but I chose not to rebut because [Waxman's] a butt," Benn says, adding that the program's lessons are often taken out of context and distorted by comprehensive sex educators who are out to wrest funding from abstinence educators. "Even Planned Parenthood says [an abortion] required counseling afterward because it can cause depression and increase [the chances of] suicide," she counters. "We do say that abortion has the possibility of increasing the likelihood of suicide."


Planned Parenthood disagrees. "The suggestion by anti-choice people that abortion has negative emotional and physical consequences that regularly requires intervention and counseling is simply not supported by the medical and psychological experts," says Jet Tilly, public affairs officer for the organization. PP does not require counseling after an abortion, but provides it if it's requested.


Teen-Aid also teaches that condoms fail one out of six times. But that's not true, according to the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.


"The most recent statistics say that when [condoms are] used consistently and correctly, they are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and 99 percent effective in preventing STDs and STIs [Sexually Transmitted Infections]," Tilly says.





But abstinence educators, bolstered by increased funding from the Bush Administration, say the proponents of comprehensive sex education are the ones sending misleading messages to youth.


"The promotion of an idea that people can be safe and still practice recreational sex is an oxymoron, and comprehensive sex education does exactly that," says Paula Cullen, executive director of Life Services of Spokane. "Schools have bought into the myth that sex can be practiced in a recreational manner and those who do it can be safe. That is not accurate or helpful to students."


Cullen is part of the Network of Abstinence Educators of Spokane, a group made up of anti-comprehensive sex education organizations that are currently protesting two bills in the Washington state legislature. House Bill 1282 and Senate Bill 5306, which haven't yet been voted on, would provide a set of guidelines for sex educators; sex education still would not be mandatory, but schools that chose to provide sex education would need to follow the guidelines in their curriculum. The Department of Health and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released the Sexual Health and Disease Prevention Guidelines on Jan. 11, with the purpose of giving teenagers medically accurate and objective information.


While abstinence educators fight to keep the guidelines out of their curriculum, those in favor of them say the guidelines will help prevent falsehoods in abstinence-only education. But whether the guidelines would help is another question. The Bush Administration's 2005 budget allots $170 million -- twice the amount spent in 2001 -- on abstinence-only education. The just-released 2006 budget calls for as much as $206 million in abstinence-only programs, documenting that the request for funding will be $270 million by 2008.


Though President Bush has been an adamant supporter of abstinence education, spending as much as $10 million on state programs when he was governor of Texas, the state ranked last in the nation during that funding period in the decline of teen birth rates among girls 15 to 17 years old; it rated fifth-worst in overall teen pregnancy rates. During Bush's first term, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was required to remove links to comprehensive sex education from its Web site.


"It's important to provide medically accurate information so teens can make responsible decisions regarding pregnancy, disease prevention and contraception," Tilly says.





FACT AND FICTION


These false claims are taught in some of the 13 commonly used abstinence programs, according to a recent congressional report.


FALSE: Women who have had abortions are "more prone to suicide" and have an increased likelihood of developing breast cancer.


FACT: There is no study that links increased suicide rates with women who've had an abortion. Texas, Mississippi, Kansas and Louisiana have state-issued pamphlets urging women to consider the link between breast cancer and abortion, though no such link exists, according to the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Institute, the British medical journal The Lancet and the Royal College of Obstetricians.


FALSE: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread through sweat and tears.


FACT: According to the Centers for Disease Control, HIV is spread through blood and sexual fluids only. You can contract the virus by having sex, by sharing a needle with an infected person, through breast milk or by receiving an infected blood transfusion (the latter is an extremely remote possibility in the United States, where every blood donation is tested for the virus).





Publication date: 2/10/05
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