Washington Blade - September 27, 2002
Report says federal, Texas programs endanger gay youth, violate
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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 email@example.com.
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