Sullivan Kills Controversial Survey on Teenage Sex
Washington--Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, has axed a controversial survey on the sexual behaviors of teenagers.
Alixe Glen, a spokesman for the Secretary, said Dr. Sullivan decided last week to kill the survey, which would have asked teenagers explicit questions about their sexual experiences with same- and opposite-sex partners.
"He obviously recognizes the overwhelming need to reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy," she said, but "he was concerned about the potential inadvertent message that his survey might send."
Dr. Sullivan announced earlier this month that he was reviewing the efficacy of the five-year, $18-million study after being questioned about it when he appeared on a conservative, satellite-network talk show in mid-July.
At the time, aides said he was re4viewing the study because he was not that familiar with it.
The survey has long been mired in controversy.
It had been held up within the department for more than a year, because of concerns by some conservatives over a separate study of adults' sexual behaviors. Last year, 25 scientific and academic groups petitioned hhs to conduct both surveys. (See Education Week, May 23, 1990.)
Two Sets of Questions
The survey of teenagers, which was being developed by researchers from the University of North Carolina, would have focused on students in grades 7-12.
According to hhs, a nationally representative sample of about 160,000 students would have been asked initial screening questions in a questionnaire administered at school. From that group, 24,000 who indicated that they might be sexually active would have been asked to participate in an in-person interview. 4 8
Bill Grigg, a spokesman for the Public Health Service, which is part of hhs, said the screening questions would have been "simple dating questions," such as "Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?" and "Do you hold hands?" Schools could have chosen to opt out of the survey, he said.
He said about 25 percent of 300 questions that would have been asked during the second interview would have focused on sexual activity, and that 10 questions would have focused on same-sex activity.
Other questions would have focused on drinking, drug use, and the teenager's life at home and at school. Parents would have had the right to review the questions and to veto their child's participation in the project, he said.
Mr. Grigg said the survey would have helped health officials deter mine "the influences that cause early pregnancy, unmarried pregnancy, promiscuity in general, and practices that [transmit] sexually transmitted diseases and aids."
Ms. Glen, the hhs spokesman, said that the government was not planning to conduct any other surveys on the issues, and that, instead, it would rely on privately collected data.
"There are other academic and private researchers who don't use federal funds," she said.
'A Political Reaction'
Judith Auerbach, head of government liaison for the Consortium for Social Science Associations, which petitioned the department last year to conduct the study, called Dr. Sullivan's decision "a political reaction" to pressure from conservatives.
Because the survey had already gained approval through the government's peer-review process, she said, Dr. Sullivan's decision is "a violation of the scientific process."
Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council and former domestic policy adviser to President Reagan, said he was pleased that the survey had been canceled. Both the explicit content of the study's questions as well as the survey's apparent scientific redundancy made it objectionable, he said.
"Our feeling was it was $18 mil lion to discover what, by and large, we already know," Mr. Bauer said.
From a look at the age of the patients in a clinic treating sexually transmitted diseases, he said, "it's painfully evident ... how many teenagers [are having sex] too early and too often."
Research already shows, for example, that children from intact families and those who attend church are less likely to engage in premarital sex, Mr. Bauer said.
Late last week, the House headed off an amendment to the reauthorization bill for the National Institutes of Health that would have prohibited any federally funded national survey of human sexual behavior. The nih was sponsoring the survey of teenagers.
Information for this story was also gathered by Staff Writer Millicent Lawton.