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Abstinence Programs Lack Factual Reviews, GAO Study Concludes

By Christina A. Samuels — November 22, 2006 3 min read

Most abstinence-until-marriage sex education programs financed by the federal government are not reviewed by the government for scientific accuracy, nor does the government require grant recipients to review the materials they use to make sure they are medically accurate, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The congressional watchdog agency, in a report dated Oct. 3 but released this month, surveyed 10 states that received the largest share of funding from the abstinence education grant program. It found that only five of those states conduct their own reviews of the curricula used by abstinence education programs.

Read “Abstinence Education: Efforts to Assess the Accuracy and Effectiveness of Federally Funded Programs,” available from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The GAO report focuses primarily on two programs that are administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. A state-grant program provides money to states, which they then match and use for abstinence education. A community-based grant program provides money directly to public and private entities, including school districts, for abstinence education.

A third program, which is run through the HHS’ Office of Population Affairs, also provides money directly to public and private entities as part of the Adolescent Family Life program.

All three programs have been a priority of the Bush administration, and were funded at about $158 million for fiscal 2005. The GAO found that the Office of Population Affairs seemed to exercise more oversight over its grant recipients than the Administration for Children and Families.

“OPA does review the scientific accuracy of grantees’ proposed educational materials,” the report says. “While the extent to which federally funded abstinence education materials are inaccurate is not known,” it says, “in the course of their reviews OPA and some states reported that they have found inaccuracies.”

One example was an abstinence program that incorrectly suggested that the virus that causes AIDS could pass through condoms because latex is porous. The report indicated that the inaccuracies are often the result of information being out of date because medical information changes frequently.

The GAO also assessed efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of abstinence education programs. The report indicates that much of the research doesn’t meet basic requirements of scientific rigor, such as using a control group or measuring biological outcomes, as opposed to attitudes and intentions. Therefore, any conclusions drawn from such studies are limited, says the GAO, which undertook its evaluation at the request of Democratic lawmakers in Congress.

HHS responded in writing to the report by saying that all grant recipients are required as part of their applications to indicate that they are using materials that are grounded in scientific data. In addition, the response says, several studies on the effectiveness of abstinence education are under way.

Lawmakers Respond

In response to the report, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced a bill Nov. 16 that would require federally funded sex education programs to teach medically accurate and factual information. “Teenagers should not be misled about basic facts, and denied potentially life-saving health information,” Sen. Lautenberg said in a statement.

The GAO report is the latest assessment related to the controversial federal grant program. A recent advisory opinion from the GAO general counsel’s office suggested that abstinence programs must include “medically accurate” information about condoms or risk violating federal law. (“GAO Opinion Renews Debate on Abstinence-Only Programs,” Nov. 1, 2006.)

“It is increasingly clear that the Administration for Children and Families’ strategy is to bury their heads in the sand and simply throw money at organizations that favor the social-issue agenda of the Bush administration,” William Smith, the vice president for public policy at the New York City-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, told the Associated Press.

But Mary Anne Mosack, a spokeswoman for the National Abstinence Leadership Council, which represents several providers of abstinence-until-marriage programs, said her group does not shy away from medical accuracy or rigorous evaluation.

“Of course, being medically accurate is something that is completely reasonable,” Ms. Mosack said. She noted that the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are both studying the effectiveness of abstinence education.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Abstinence Programs Lack Factual Reviews, GAO Study Concludes

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