On December 1, Representative Henry Waxman (R-CA) released a report criticizing the abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula used by over two-thirds of Special Projects of Regional and National Significance-Community Based Abstinence Education (SPRANS-CBAE) grantees.1 SPRANS-CBAE is the largest federal funding stream for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs with a Fiscal Year 2005 budget of over $100 million. SPRANS-CBAE grantees receive funding directly from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The report showed that 11 out of 13 of the most commonly used abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula contain medical misinformation, use fear and shame, blur religion and science, and perpetuate stereotypes about gender roles. The report, titled The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, was prepared for Representative Waxman by minority staff of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform.
The report garnered a large amount of media coverage. It was covered by CNN, MSNBC, Washington Post, The New York Times, and a variety of other media outlets around the country. While appearing on CNN's Paula Zahn Now, Bill Smith, Vice President for Public Policy at SIECUS stated, "These programs are completely out of control. They're using millions of taxpayer dollars to provide medical misinformation and use fear and shame-based messages to control young people to change their behavior. Our young people deserve better than that, and I think that's what the congressman's report indicates."
The abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula reviewed in the report contained numerous medical and scientific inaccuracies. Perhaps the most disturbing of these occurs in a program entitled WAIT Training. In this program, students are taught that HIV/AIDS can be transmitted though tears and sweat.2 In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that tears and sweat have never been shown to transmit HIV.3 Other curricula falsely state the number of chromosomes in cells and wrongly define sexually transmitted diseases and infections.4
Reviewed curricula also blur the line between religion and science, especially when discussing abortion. The curriculum FACTS states, "Conception, also known as fertilization, occurs when one sperm unites with one egg in the upper third of the fallopian tubes. This is when life begins." Another curriculum, Me, My World, My Future, states that, "Fertilization (or conception) occurs when one of the father's sperm unites with the mother's ovum (egg). At this instant a new human life is formed." These curricula assume that all students and their parents share the same beliefs about the beginning of life and the morality of abortion.5
Many of the reviewed curricula also attempt to discourage young people from using condoms and other forms of contraception by distorting information about their efficacy. Several curricula refer to a particular study that states that condoms have only a 69 percent effectiveness rate even though this study was discounted by HHS itself in a 1997 statement saying that the "FDA and CDC believe this analysis was flawed."6
In addition to providing inaccurate medical information, several of these curricula portray gender stereotypes as fact. They often represent young women as weak and in need of protection, while describing young men as victims of their own sexual drives. An exercise from the curriculum Choosing the Best, for example, describes a knight who saves a princess from a dragon. The princess advises the knight on how to kill the dragon using a noose and poison, the knight follows her advice, and is successful. However, he feels "ashamed" and decides to marry a village girl instead of the princess, but only after making sure, "she knew nothing about nooses or poisons."7
Bruce Cook, president and founder of Choosing the Best, Inc., quickly attacked the report. He stated that "Choosing the Best does not deal with abortion, religion, or contain scientific errors." He did not address whether his curriculum perpetuates gender stereotypes.8 Other abstinence-only-until-marriage proponents, such as the Abstinence Clearinghouse and the Heritage Foundation, attacked the report saying that it took quotes from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs out of context.9
Bill Smith responded, "There is no 'context' that can justify teaching young women that being intelligent is unattractive or make providing inaccurate information about condoms and other forms of life-saving contraceptives unacceptable, especially when these harmful programs are being supported by over $167 million dollars in federal funds in 2005."
- The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Program (U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, December 1, 2004).
- Ibid, 22.
- Which Body Fluids Transmit HIV? (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 15, 2003).
- Ibid, 22.
- Ibid, 15.
- Ibid, 8.
- Ibid, 17.
- Bruce Cook, "Critics of Abstinence Education Misguided," Atlanta Journal Constitution, 09 December 2004.
- Abstinence Clearinghouse, "Opponent of Common Sense Show Their True Colors, "Press Release published on 03 December 2004.; Melissa G. Pardue "Waxman Report is Riddled with Errors," The Heritage Foundation, December 2, 2004.