By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 2005
A government Web site intended to help parents and teenagers make "smart choices about their health and future" includes inaccurate or misleading information that may alienate some families or prompt riskier behavior, according to a team of medical experts who reviewed the material.
Three physicians and a child psychologist analyzed the Bush administration's 4Parents.gov Web site and concluded it made many incorrect assertions about condoms, sexual orientation, single-parent households and the dangers of oral sex.
They also found omissions of information that could go a long way toward raising healthy young adults, such as warning against the dangers of drinking alcohol.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), a frequent administration critic who solicited the analyses, said the site is the latest example of "the distortion of scientific information" in favor of a conservative ideology focused predominantly on promoting abstinence-until-marriage programs.
"A federally-funded website should present the facts as they are, not as you might wish them to be," Waxman wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. "It is wrong -- and ultimately self-defeating -- to sacrifice scientific accuracy in an effort to frighten teens and their parents."
Laurence Steinberg, a child psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of "The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting," complimented the site's information on eating disorders and some other topics. But Steinberg, one of the reviewers, said he was disturbed by negative messages about gays and single parents, and alarmed that the material was virtually silent on the dangers of drinking alcohol.
"If your concern really is to provide parents with information they can use to help raise healthy teenagers, there is a whole list of topics that need to be covered," he said. "Risky sexual behavior is just one of them, and frankly it's not even the most important one."
With a virtual army of medical and behavioral experts on its payroll, Waxman questioned why the Department of Health and Human Services paid the National Physicians Center for Family Resources $46,000 to develop the site. The group, which bills itself as a nonprofit focused on child welfare, is known for promoting a study by board member Joel Brind suggesting a link between abortion and breast cancer, assertions the administration first embraced but later withdrew from its Web sites.
In an e-mail, HHS spokesman Daniel Morales said officials had not reviewed Waxman's letter. The administration often hires outside contractors to design Web sites, he added.
"The purpose of the Web site is to equip parents with the resources they need to talk to their youth about sex and relationships; encourage their teens to remain abstinent from unhealthy risk behaviors; and to take an active role in the sexual health of their teens," he said.
John Whiffen, an orthopedic surgeon and chairman of the physicians center, said he is open to suggested changes and plans to add more information to the site, on alcohol and tobacco use, for example.
But he vigorously defended the site's emphasis on abstinence-only education and the failure rates of various contraceptives.
"The majority of parents in the United States would prefer their children don't have sex in high school," he said. "In the areas of sex before marriage, there is a great deal of misinformation out there and a great deal of misunderstanding."
John Santelli, a physician at Columbia University and a former division chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed there are problems of misinformation in the field of sexual health. But Santelli, one of the specialists who reviewed the site, pointed the finger at 4Parents.gov.
Contrary to statements on the Web site, "there is little evidence that oral sex has increased over time or that this behavior has become widespread among 12 and 13 year olds," he wrote. And he complained that the Web site's approach is based on the fallacy "that young people . . . engage in sexual intercourse because they have access to condoms."