. . . And Politics Before Pregnant Teens (The Washington Post) 07/28/02
The Washington Blade
February 28, 2003
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
Faith healing HIV in D.C.
Will local health officials undermine their own HIV/AIDS prevention message in their eagerness for federal dollars? Negotiations now underway between the DC Department of Health and federal officials on an abstinence-only education grant may suggest an answer.
The specter of funding driving AIDS policy, rather than the other way around, is nothing new. Four years ago, HIV/AIDS Administration chief Ron Lewis scared local AIDS service providers with the false prospect of losing federal funding if DC did not adopt names-based HIV reporting. For years, one service agency has run an ad in the Blade for men "on the D-L" whose very denial of their gayness makes them unlikely to read the Blade in the first place. When I asked if there was a reason for this peculiar ad placement other than a desire not to lose the public funds that pay for it, the only answer I got was an indignant assertion that I had no business as a white person asking the question. My provisional conclusion: scare- and race-mongering may work as tactics, but money rules.
At a February 14 oversight hearing on grants programs of the Department of Health (DOH), Councilmember David Catania asked Mr. Lewis (who doubles as DOH Deputy Director) about the status of an $800,000 federal grant for the implementation of an abstinence-only sex education program for District adolescents. Lewis reported that DOH has not yet implemented the program, pending negotiations to clarify the federal requirements of the grant.
At an October 10, 2002 meeting of the Mayor's GLBT Advisory Committee, Lewis defended the Department's participation in the abstinence-only program by saying that it would complement DOH's existing range of HIV education programs. He said that his plan was "abstinence plus." When I pointed out that the federal program was not about abstinence plus but abstinence ONLY, Lewis said that he was not worried about any trouble with federal officials. Apparently, the feds thought otherwise.
Abstinence Only Until Marriage is not a health care philosophy at all but a religious doctrine foisted by the same head-in-the-sand cultural conservatives who have opposed informative and useful sex education for the past generation. As a doctrine it condemns not just irresponsible sex but ANY sex outside marriage, which, as laws now stand, excludes gay people entirely.
Grounded in morality rather than medicine, the federal program prohibits 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 can be discussed, critical facts pertaining to prevention are lost. This 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.
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."
At 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."
As citizens, we do not have to accept being told by our government using our tax dollars that the only legitimate gay sexuality is none at all. It has been a decade since we rid the District of a law that rendered us felons for consensual, private sex, and we should not allow the same stigma to be brought in by the back door with religious indoctrination disguised as sex education.
Richard J. Rosendall is a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.