On April 23, 2008, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), held the first-ever hearing on the effectiveness of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Three panels of witnesses testified at the hearing including leading medical and sexual health experts from across the country who testified on the ineffectiveness of the programs, youth speakers who testified to the program’s effects on their lives, and several government officials and Members of Congress.
“We are very grateful to the Committee and Chairman Waxman for holding this important and long-overdue hearing,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). ”We commend Members of the Committee, including Representatives McCollum, Sarbanes, Shays, Welch, and Yarmuth, as well as Representative Capps who testified during the hearing, for asking pointed questions of witnesses and for being champions of a real approach to sex education,” continued Smith.
Since 1982, the federal government has spent over $1.5 billion on unproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Under President Bush spending on these programs has increased exponentially with $800 million having been spent during the current administration and more than $175 million allocated in Fiscal Year 2008 alone. These programs are prohibited from discussing contraceptives except in the context of failure rates and have never been proven to be broadly effective.
In fact, numerous studies over the past year have shown that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs do not work. An April 2007 study commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services, and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. found that these programs have no positive effect on the sexual behavior of youth. At the same time, Emerging Answers 2007, a report authored by Dr. Douglas Kirby, a leading researcher on adolescent health, showed that comprehensive sex education programs hold the most promise for lowering the rates of teen pregnancy and STDs.
Witnesses at the hearing included Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association; Dr. Margaret Blythe, Chair of the Committee on Adolescence, American Academy of Pediatrics; Dr. Harvey Fineberg, President, Institute of Medicine; and Dr. John Santelli, Professor and Chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at the School of Public Health at Columbia. All of these witnesses oppose abstinence-only-until-marriage programs due to their ineffectiveness and ethical concerns with the programs. Based on the overwhelming evidence, these researchers explained that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective at getting young people to delay sexual initiation and have not been effective at reducing teen pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV. The majority of the health professionals called for an end to federal funding for the programs and said that funds should instead be spent on comprehensive sexuality education that has been proven to be effective.
“Vast sums of federal monies continue to be directed toward these programs. And, in fact, there is evidence to suggest that some of these programs are even harmful and have negative consequences by not providing adequate information for those teens who do become sexually active,” Dr. Blythe told the committee.1
Blythe pointed out that comprehensive sexuality education should, and does, emphasize abstinence as the best way for teens to avoid unintended pregnancy and STDs and noted that, “Those adolescents who choose to abstain from sexual intercourse should obviously be encouraged and supported in their decisions by their families, peers, and communities. But abstinence should not be the only strategy discussed.”2
Representative Louise Capps (D-CA) testified as a lawmaker, but also as a former school nurse who once directed a program for teen parents who stayed in school. “They were asking us for help because they got pregnant in the first place because they didn’t know enough,” Capps said. The Congresswoman called for funding to be spent on more comprehensive programs.
Seventeen states, including California, have now declined to participate in the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program due, in part, to its restrictive nature and the overwhelming evidence that the programs are ineffective. Representative Chris Shays, a Republican Committee Member, noted that his home-state of Connecticut had turned down the funding because leaders in the state “think it is ultimately going to result in young people being deprived of knowledge that will save their lives.”3
Republican Committee Members who support abstinence-only-until programs, as well as Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), who also testified at the hearing, conceded that many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have been found to be ineffective. However, they still argued it would be wrong to end funding for the programs. Representative John Duncan (R-TN) said that despite the evidence it seemed “rather elitist” that those with public health degrees thought they knew better than parents what type of sex education works.
Two witnesses—Max Siegel and Shelby Knox—testified to the harmful personal effects the programs had on their lives and the lives of their peers. Siegel, a policy associate at AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families, went through an abstinence-only-until-marriage program taught by his junior high school gym teacher. At the age 17, he started a relationship that included unprotected sex with a man six years older. He describes a lack of knowledge and skills that he attributes to having been through on an abstinence-only-until-marriage program, “I did not know how to assert myself further. I knew enough to suggest a condom, but I did not have an adequate understanding of the importance of using one, and even if I did, I had no idea how to discuss condoms with my partner.”4 Siegel contracted HIV as a result of this relationship.
Knox, who was “born and raised in a Southern Baptist family in Lubbock, Texas,” took a virginity pledge at 15 at her church. Her pastor who officiated at her pledge ceremony also taught a secular abstinence-only-until-marriage program. During her testimony, Knox noted how ill-prepared the class left her and her peers for the reality of their current and future lives. Knox explained that her parents, “proud conservatives who encouraged my virginity pledge, joined me in asking the school board to change the curriculum because they wanted me to have complete and accurate information about my body and sexuality.” Like the majority of parents in America, Knox said, “They did not see a conflict with encouraging me to remain abstinent, while at the same time ensuring that my classmates and I received the tools in school to make healthy and responsible decisions throughout our lives.”
Stan Weed, was the only witness at the hearing who was suggested by the Republican minority to scientifically defend abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and the government’s investment into this kind of education. By his own words, Weed has spent more than 20 years working on these issues, interviewed more than 500,000 teens, and studied more than 100 abstinence-only programs. Yet, Weed has only one published study in a peer-reviewed journal showing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs can have any impact on sexual behavior. (The program studied showed a modest impact in helping seventh graders delay sex.) Despite Weed’s insistence that abstinence-only-until-marriage continue, he admitted that they have not, up to this point, “done abstinence well” and repeatedly backed away from the legislatively mandated abstinence-only-until-marriage approach and instead, framed the programs around the term ”abstinence-centered.”
Despite the evidence, Charles Keckler, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, also supported abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. He stated that, “The administration continues to support abstinence education programs…to address the continuing problems created by adolescent sexual activity.”5
Chairman Waxman, however, strongly questioned this approach. He said, “We are showering funds on abstinence-only programs that don’t appear to work, while ignoring proven comprehensive sex education programs that can delay sex, protect teens from disease, and result in fewer teen pregnancies.” The Chairman noted that, “Meanwhile, we have no dedicated source of federal funding specifically for comprehensive classroom sex education.”6
Close to 60 national, state, and local organizations, including SIECUS, the National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education (NCSSE), the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Psychological Association, submitted statements criticizing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and calling for an end to federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
“The teen birth rate is on the rise. Data from the CDC show that one in four teenage girls has an STD. Clearly, an entire generation of young people is growing up without the comprehensive sexuality education they need to protect themselves,” Smith said. “We hope this hearing brought to Congress the overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective, potentially harmful to youth, and should no longer receive federal funds. We all want to help more young people abstain and delay sex and the evidence shows us that comprehensive sex education will get us there, not the failed abstinence-only-until-marriage approach,” concluded Smith.
To view the video of the hearing, click here: http://oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1910
You can read the testimony of those who testified as well as read Chairman Waxman's opening statement here: http://oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1888
And finally, the Daily Show with John Stewart also had some fun with the hearing. To see the video, go to: http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=167331&title=the-global-war-in-your-pants
- Will Dunham, “Experts say US sex abstinence program doesn’t work,” Reuters, 23 April 2008, accessed 28 April 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSN23459576.
- Kate Barrett, “Classroom Clashes: What Should Teens Learn About Sex,” 23 April 2008, accessed 28 April 2008, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=4712732&page=1
- Will Dunham.