GLAA opposes abstinence-only education grant
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HIV/AIDS Administration, DC Dept. of Health

GLAA on AIDS and Public Health

GLAA opposes abstinence-only education grant

Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC
P.O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013
202-667-5139
www.glaa.org

Monday, February 17, 2003

Written Testimony for Public Oversight Hearing
on Grants Programs of the Department of Health

D.C. Council Committee on Public Services


Dear Chairman Catania:

We are writing to present our statement for the record of your performance and oversight hearing on the grants programs of the Department of Health (DOH), which was held on February 14. We strongly oppose the District's acceptance of federal grant funds for abstinence-only HIV/AIDS education.

Specifically, we refer to the discussion between yourself and DOH Deputy Director Ron Lewis on the status of the $800,000 federal grant for the implementation of an abstinence-only sex education program for District adolescents. We were relieved to hear that DOH has not yet implemented this program, pending negotiations to "clarify" the federal requirements of the abstinence-only grant. You referred to the "controversies" surrounding this program, and Mr. Lewis indicated that he and his colleagues shared many of the doubts expressed about it. We are gratified that DOH now apparently realizes that the objections GLAA and others have voiced may indeed have merit.

At an October 10, 2002 meeting of the Mayor's GLBT Advisory Committee with Mr. Lewis and Deputy Mayor Carolyn Graham, Lewis defended the Department's participation in the abstinence-only program by saying that it would complement DOH's existing range of HIV prevention education programs. He said that his plan was "abstinence plus." We pointed out that this contradicted the express purpose of the federal grant, which was not for abstinence plus but for abstinence ONLY. Lewis dismissed these concerns, saying that he was not worried about any trouble from federal officials over the District's implementation of the program. We are glad to learn that he has rethought this, but we need more details.

Abstinence Only Until Marriage, which is what we are talking about, is in fact not a health care philosophy at all but a right-wing religious doctrine foisted by the same head-in-the-sand cultural conservatives who have been fighting informative and useful sex education in this country for the past generation. As a doctrine it demonizes not just irresponsible or reckless sex but ANY sex before marriage, which of course excludes gay people entirely. As equal citizens of this country, we will not accept being told by our government using our tax dollars that the only acceptable sexuality is none at all. It has been a decade since we successfully rid the District of its own damnable law that rendered us felons for consensual, private, adult sex, and we are not about to have the same stigma brought in through a back door.

Grounded as it is in morality rather than medicine, the federal program prohibits factual information about how to use condoms and contraception to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Only the failure rates of such methods can be mentioned. When only one set of choices is allowed to be discussed, critical facts pertaining to prevention are lost. That federal policy favors ideology over science was shown by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when it replaced its condom fact sheet with a new one that omits information on the proper use and storage of condoms, stressing instead that the protection afforded by them is not absolute. As the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. observes, "Research continues to show that condoms are one of the best methods of preventing unwanted pregnancy and are one of the only methods for sexually active individuals to protect themselves against STDs, including HIV."

The legal definition of "abstinence education" in the Social Security Act includes the following overtly discriminatory clauses:
"SEC. 510. [42 U.S.C. 710] (b)(2) For purposes of this section, the term 'abstinence education' means an educational or motivational program which--
(B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;
(D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;
(E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects...."
Not only is this a baseless insult against all gay people, coupled or otherwise, it is also a blatant call for religious indoctrination in the guise of sex education.

Incidentally, the District's abstinence program is not directed only at underage children. The Washington City Paper, in its cover story "Missionary Position" last October, quoted the Health Department's abstinence education project manager, Margaret Copemann, as saying, "The new grant will allow us to do outreach to 13- to 18-year-olds as well." DC Public Schools Superintendent Paul Vance wrote a letter in support of the Health Department's grant application. Fortunately, Board of Education member Tommy Wells said, "Are they running these programs in my public schools? I certainly wouldn't want to rely on abstinence as a public health intervention."

GLAA and Tommy Wells are far from alone in our concerns. At the CDC's December 2002 "Prevention Summit" in Atlanta, a statement signed by more than 60 AIDS organizations (including DC's Whitman-Walker Clinic) was distributed in support of HIV prevention programs that include comprehensive sex education. According to the statement, "Research has shown that the most effective sexual health programs are comprehensive ones that include a focus on delaying sexual behavior and provide information on how sexually active young people can protect themselves."

A 2001 "Call to Action" by former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, M.D., in which he advocated comprehensive sex education, cited evidence that providing information about contraception does not increase adolescent sexual activity.

The American Foundation for AIDS Research states, "there is no substantive evidence that abstinence-only education is successful in encouraging young people to delay sexual activity until marriage, and thus to avoid pregnancy or infection with HIV or other STDs. Nevertheless, supporters of abstinence-only education continue to call for increased funding and expansion of programs that teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the only acceptable standard of behavior for young people, barring any discussion of contraception and disease prevention methods."

In its September 2002, report titled "Ignorance Only: HIV/AIDS, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs in the United States," Human Rights Watch concluded that abstinence-only education threatens the health of the nation's youth by excluding information on condom use and other methods of HIV prevention.

In short, abstinence-only programs are widely rejected by the organizations most dedicated to fighting AIDS in this country and defending the most at-risk populations.

Please join us in demanding an end to the District's participation in any abstinence-only programs, because those grant funds come at too high a price. If DOH does proceed with the program, we urge you to demand, and to share with us, the details of those clarifications between DOH and federal health officials, as well as details of the curriculum for the District's program. We note from your hearing that once clarification is reached, the money is to be spent by Community Partners, not by the department itself. As these partners include faith-based groups, we have a further concern. Over the years, one of the greatest obstacles to confronting the threat of HIV and AIDS in our city has been created by so-called Christian ministers because of their denial on the subject of youth sexuality, coupled with virulent homophobia that extends even to insulting gay AIDS victims at their funerals. We do not for a moment believe that such bigots are representative of Christians or the faith community generally; but the extent to which this very real denial and intolerance has hampered our public health efforts should be a reminder of the hazards of mixing church and state. We urge your vigilance in ensuring that such bigots do not receive public funds to further that denial and intolerance.

Thank you.

Rick Rosendall
Vice President for Political Affairs
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance

cc: All DC Councilmembers
James A. Buford, Director, DOH
Ron Lewis, Deputy Director, DOH
Cornelius Baker, Whitman-Walker Clinic
William Smith, SIECUS
Washington Blade
Metro Weekly
Washington City Paper


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