Condom Information in Abstinence Programs Called Inaccurate

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007

Each of these assertions turns up in federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs: Condoms fail to prevent HIV infection 31 percent of the time during heterosexual sex. The chances of getting pregnant while using a condom are 1 in 6. And condoms break or slip off nearly 15 percent of the time.

And each of them is wrong, says John S. Santelli, a pediatrician and a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

In a 20-page document submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services this week, Santelli detailed what he calls "misleading" and "scientifically inaccurate" information in three curricula used by programs that receive federal abstinence-only funding. His analysis accompanied a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union demanding that HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt ensure that such programs provide medically accurate information about condoms and sexually transmitted diseases, as required by federal law.

"They have been alerted numerous times, and they haven't done anything," said Ava Barbour, an ACLU staff attorney. "Studies have shown that the vast majority of Americans do not remain abstinent until marriage, and they need to have this vital information to protect themselves."

Two other nonprofit advocacy groups joined the ACLU -- Advocates for Youth, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson said agency officials had not reviewed the letter and other materials yet. "As a general statement," she said, "I do want to note that our abstinence programs have been, and will continue to be, medically accurate, teaching young people about the healthier choices they can make in life."

The department's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) provides technical assistance to grantees and monitors the accuracy of their educational materials, Pearson said. The government spends $176 million a year on abstinence programs.

The materials have been the subject of political and legal battles for years, with critics, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), contending that the Bush administration has ignored inaccuracies in the service of conservative ideology.

The Government Accountability Office reported in October that the ACF did not review its grantees' materials for accuracy, but that HHS's Office of Population Affairs, which administers some abstinence programs, did. The GAO did not assess the accuracy of any materials itself.

In the ACLU filing, Santelli said the 31 percent figure regarding condoms and HIV was from an outdated 1993 study. More recent studies show that the risk of an HIV-negative person being infected by an HIV-positive partner is reduced by 80 to 87 percent if condoms are used every time they have sex, Santelli wrote.

Authoritative studies also show that the chances of an unintended pregnancy while using a condom are not 1 in 6, Santelli wrote, but about 2 percent over the course of a year if condoms are used correctly every time. And condoms break or slip off less than 4 percent of the time, not 15 percent, Santelli wrote.

LeAnna Benn, national director of Teen-Aid Inc., a nonprofit group in Spokane, Wash., which developed some of the abstinence materials, said 25 physicians had reviewed them for accuracy. The ACLU's real goal is to persuade Congress to kill funding for abstinence programs this year, she said.

"Teen-Aid's position is always to be free from medical error and to help teens be free from consequences," she said. "This is about the funding. . . . Santelli's report, it's all regurgitated stuff. We have to ask, 'What is the motive, and why the press over something that's old news?' "

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