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New GAO Finding Says HHS in Violation of the Law as a Result of Medically Inaccurate Information about Condoms in Abstinence-Only Programs

On October 19, 2006, the non-partisan United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt finding that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is in violation of federal law by failing to enforce a requirement that federally funded grantees working to address the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, must provide medically accurate information about the effectiveness of condoms.

The GAO finding contradicts an earlier position set forth by HHS' Administration for Children and Families that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are exempt from this requirement. HHS argued that the programs fell outside of the law because they are not designed to address sexually transmitted diseases and because they are targeted at too diverse an audience. HHS' first rationale was found to be particularly puzzling by many given that the law that guides abstinence-only-until-marriage programs specifically charges them to focus on sexually transmitted diseases. GAO characterized the rationale as “not persuasive” and advised the Department to “reexamine its position and adopt measures to ensure that, where applicable, abstinence education materials comply with this requirement.”

“We welcome the GAO's finding and eagerly await the next steps by HHS to come into compliance with federal law,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “For the better part of twenty-five years, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have been permitted to use tax-payer dollars to lie about the effectiveness of condoms and the current administration has, time and again, failed to hold these programs accountable for much of anything except cashing their grant checks,” continued Smith.

The GAO letter stems from an investigation requested by Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) who previously found that the vast majority of curricula most commonly used in federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs contain medically inaccurate information. HHS has prohibited abstinence-only-until-marriage programs from discussing the effectiveness of condoms. In fact, many programs funded with federal dollars deliberately undermine young people's faith in condoms by exaggerating condom failure rates.

“If HHS fails to act and obey the law, as it has failed to do repeatedly when it comes to most-favored status for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, we are likely to end up in the courts,” Smith said. “It is never acceptable for publicly funded health or education programs to lie to young people or ply them with half truths,” Smith concluded.

The full GAO letter can be found at www.gao.gov/decisions/other/308128.pdf.

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