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U.S. 'abstinence-only' programs violate human rights


Washington Blade - September 27, 2002

Report says federal, Texas programs endanger gay youth, violate international law Abstinence-only programs funded by the U.S. government violate human rights principles established under international law by preventing American teenagers at risk for AIDS from obtaining potentially life-saving information, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group.

The 47-page report, released Sept. 18, charges that abstinence-only programs may be especially harmful to gay male teenagers because they prohibit health educators in public schools from informing them that condom use - as well as sexual abstinence - can be an effective means of preventing the spread of HIV.

Under a law adopted by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, state and local agencies receiving federal abstinence-only funds must promote abstaining from sexual activity until marriage as the "expected standard of human sexual activity." Policies established by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services under the Bush administration call for increasing funding for and expanding the scope of abstinence-only programs.

Current rules for such programs require teachers or health educators to teach adolescents that sexual abstinence is the "only certain way" to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. If students themselves ask about condoms, the programs require teachers to either decline to respond or to state that condoms have a potentially high "failure rate" through breakage.

"Federally funded abstinence-only programs interfere with fundamental rights guaranteed by international law, including the right to 'seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds' and the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and, indeed, may have dire consequences on the right to life," the report states. "The failure to provide accurate information about prevention of HIV transmission needlessly puts children at risk of contracting this devastating and fatal disease." "These rights are enshrined in important international human rights treaties," the report says. "The United States is a party to some of these, including the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights." HHS defends policy Bill Pierce, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which administers most federal AIDS programs, said the Bush administration disputes the report's conclusions.

"We disagree with this assessment because they have not looked at the full range of the programs we fund," Pierce said. "Abstinence-only is not the only program we support and fund." Pierce noted that HHS and other federal agencies fund other programs that "provide a full range of messages" on methods for preventing HIV, including condom use. He pointed to current programs that fund AIDS service organizations that reach out to various groups, including gay men.

"All we are doing is making abstinence-only programs a full partner in U.S. health education programs, Pierce said. "We are not taking anything away." Rebecca Schleifer, author of the Human Rights Watch Report, "Ignorance Only: HIV/AIDS, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs in the United States," said teenagers at risk for HIV most likely would not have access to the other programs to which Pierce referred.

"The Bush administration wants to spend millions more dollars on abstinence-only programs that put teenagers at higher risk for HIV," she said. Pointing to Texas, which her report used as a case study for abstinence-only programs, Schleifer said the federally funded programs in Texas "don't just censor information, they actively promote misinformation about condoms." "And they deprive adolescents of one of the most important tools they need to protect themselves from HIV," she said.

Research for the report included interviews with directors and staff members of Texas-based abstinence-only programs funded by the federal government. Those interviewed included teachers, counselors, administrators, and students involved with these programs, the report says.

Similar to other states, the report says, federally funded abstinence-only programs in Texas restrict information about condoms because federal law bars such programs from "promoting or endorsing" the use of contraceptives.

"These programs also teach that condoms don't adequately protect against sexually transmitted diseases, particularly among teenage users, and therefore there is no such thing as 'safe' or 'safer' sex with condoms," the report says. "As a result, abstinence-only programs omit any discussion of condoms and contraception altogether, or provide inaccurate or misleading information about condoms as a method of HIV/AIDS prevention." The report notes that three federal agencies - the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention - have each issued advisements saying adolescents "should be given information about the proper use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection by HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases." The report says the rules in Texas and other states that require teachers to state that condoms are known to fail, in response to students' questions about condoms, is misleading and contradicts research findings on condom use. The report notes that CDC and NIH, for example, have issued statements in the past asserting that proper use of condoms has been shown to be an effective means of preventing the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"Given that same-sex couples may not legally marry in any U.S. state, abstinence-only programs implicitly teach that there are no safe ways for gay and lesbian youth to have a sexual relationship - now or as adults - thereby reinforcing the hostile environment that gay and lesbian youth experience at school," the report says. "In so doing, abstinence-only programs deny access to relevant and potentially life-saving health information to gay and lesbian youth and impede their right to an education free from discrimination." The report calls on the U.S. government to "repeal abstinence-only until marriage legislation and to enact in its place legislation supporting comprehensive sex education that would include information and instruction about HIV/AIDS prevention, including the use of condoms for this purpose." Lou Chibbaro Jr. can be reached at

FOR MORE INFO Human Rights Watch 350 Fifth Ave., 34th Floor New York, NY 10118 212-290-4700


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Information in this article was accurate in September 27, 2002. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.