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Waxman redux

For some reason, Town Hall has a column by Charles Colson on the Waxman report on abstinence education. Of course, it’s an attack on the report.

A recent report commissioned by California congressman Henry Waxman (D) casts doubt on the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs. At least, that’s the story promoted by Waxman’s office and by many in the media. Waxman’s researchers found errors in several abstinence-only curricula—for instance, a statement that AIDS can be spread through sweat or tears, and that each parent contributes twenty-four chromosomes to a child rather than twenty-three.

Now, of course, errors like these need to be corrected. But Waxman and the media used the opportunity of these small errors to pounce on the whole concept of abstinence-only education. Their take could be summed up by a headline in the Austin Chronicle that read, “Abstinence Makes the Head Grow Softer.”

“Small” errors? That HIV can be spread through tears is a pretty damn big error.

The lesser-publicized story is that Waxman’s report itself is full of holes. For example, to call many of its sources biased would be an understatement. Take this footnote: “The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and NARAL Pro-Choice America have conducted reviews of some abstinence-only programs.” The implication is that these reviews are useful to somebody studying abstinence-only programs—please. What they don’t even mention is that SIECUS and NARAL are both major opponents of abstinence-only education. SIECUS’s website, for example, claims that such curricula are “designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame, and guilt.” Ever hear of conflict of interest, Mr. Waxman?

I assume he bothered to read the report. He apparently even looked at the footnotes, where that quote is from.

At the request of Rep. Henry Waxman, this report is a comprehensive evaluation of the content of the curricula used in federally funded abstinence-only education programs.18

Footnote 18 is Colson’s quote. He really picked a bad example. No reports from those groups are used in the actual report, so “source” is not particularly accurate.

And then there’s the section of the report that condemns a 1993 study on condom effectiveness as “erroneous.” You would think, then, that the authors would also come down on Planned Parenthood. Their website treats that same erroneous study as authoritative. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Mr. Waxman to commission a report on the errors committed by so-called “comprehensive” sex educators.

At the end, Colson gives his source for this claim. Here’s where Planned Parenthood cites the study:

Condom-use opponents, however, have manipulated the findings of flawed laboratory tests to create public doubt about the condom’s effectiveness against HIV. For example, one study erroneously concluded that latex condoms leak HIV virus even though it used particles that were 100 million times smaller than the HIV particles found in semen (Stone, et al., 1999). In fact, the risk of HIV transmission with a condom is reduced — as much as 10,000-fold (Carey, et al., 1992; Cavalieri d’Oro, et al., 1994; Weller, 1993).

While the study is flawed, it supports the point that PP is making here – HIV transmission is reduced by using a condom. Here’s what PP says specifically about condom use and HIV transmission:

In a study of couples in which one partner was HIV positive, only one case of infection (two percent) occurred among those who remained sexually active and used condoms consistently and correctly. In contrast, the incidence of HIV infection was 14 percent with inconsistent use (Deschamps, et al., 1996). A similar study that followed couples for an average of 20 months found there were no new cases of infection among couples who used condoms consistently (de Vincenzi, 1994). Another study found that among a group of couples who used condoms consistently, two percent of the uninfected partners contracted HIV over the course of the two year study. This contrasts with 12 percent of partners who became infected in couples that reported inconsistent or no condom use (Saracco, et al., 1993). A meta-analysis of 25 studies on HIV transmission and condoms found that efficacy rates ranged from 87 percent to 96 percent against HIV infection (Davis & Weller, 1999).

There’s no citation of the 1993 Weller study when talking specifically about HIV transmission prevention by condoms.

If anything is clear from this report, it’s that Mr. Waxman has an axe to grind. Many of the so-called “errors” aren’t errors at all, simply differences of opinion. For example, the report takes one curriculum to task for stating that human life begins at conception.

Here’s the Waxman report:

Although religions and moral codes offer different answers to the question of when life begins, some abstinence-only curricula present specific religious views on this question as scientific fact. One curriculum teaches: “Conception, also known as fertilization, occurs when one sperm unites with one egg in the upper third of the fallopian tube. This is when life begins.”68 Another states: “Fertilization (or conception) occurs when one of the father’s sperm unites with the mother’s ovum (egg). At this instant a new human life is formed.”69

He takes them to task for stating a particular opinion as a fact. Seems like an error to me.

The report also claims that there is no data to support the effectiveness of abstinence education. Yet as Mary Beth Bonacci writes in the Catholic Herald, “At least 10 studies exist to date demonstrating the effectiveness of abstinence education, and four of these were published in peer-reviewed journals.”

Here’s the only reference I can find in the report:

The report finds numerous examples of these errors. Serious and pervasive problems with the accuracy of abstine nce-only curricula may help explain why these programs have not been shown to protect adolescents from sexually transmitted diseases and why youth who pledge abstinence are significantly less likely to make informed choices about precautions when they do have sex.

First, this is not the subject of the report and doesn’t reflect at all on the rest of the content.

Second, if he’s going to cite a column, which is citing the Heritage foundation, I’m going to cite PP:

Abstinence-only sexuality education doesn’t work. There is little evidence that teens who participate in abstinence-only programs abstain from intercourse longer than others. When they do become sexually active, though, they often fail to use condoms or other contraceptives. Meanwhile, students in comprehensive sexuality education classes do not engage in sexual activity more often or earlier, but do use contraception and practice safer sex more consistently when they become sexually active (AGI, 2003, Jemmott, et al., 1998; Kirby, 1999; Kirby, 2000; NARAL, 1998).

And let’s not forget that, as Paul Chesser points out in the Weekly Standard, “Abstinence education texts are hardly the only student sources rife with mistakes. Was Waxman equally indignant about the science book that identified singer Linda Ronstadt as a silicon crystal? Or the one that said the equator passes through the southern United States?”

Hey look, a completely irrelevent paragraph.

Of course, abstinence educators do need to get their facts straight. The abstinence movement has a hard enough time being taken seriously under the best of circumstances. But evidently Rep. Waxman has allowed his bias to get in the way, for if he were really concerned about accuracy, he’d be a lot more careful about his own report.

To save me the trouble, just imagine “Rep. Waxman” replaced by “Colson” and “report” by “column.”

Categories: Domestic Policy

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