- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

Federally funded abstinence-education programs that address sexually transmitted diseases are required by law to teach “medically accurate” information about condom effectiveness, a watchdog agency has informed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

HHS officials have said the condom-effectiveness statute “does not apply” to abstinence grantees, but the arguments are “not persuasive,” Government Accountability Office (GAO) general counsel Gary L. Kepplinger said in a letter this week to HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt.

The GAO advised HHS to “re-examine its position and adopt measures to ensure that, where applicable, abstinence education materials comply with” the requirement that certain educational materials contain “medically accurate information about condom effectiveness.”

Wade F. Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families, said yesterday that the GAO’s point is “kind of a distinction without a difference.”

The HHS reading of the statute is that it is meant for other agencies and purposes, Mr. Horn said. But if the GAO had asked HHS, “Do you believe that abstinence education curricula should be medically accurate,” he said, “my answer to that is, ‘Of course.’ ”

If inaccuracies are identified in abstinence grantees’ programs, “we insist that they be corrected,” Mr. Horn added. “We don’t need a law to make us do that. That’s just good government.”

The GAO letter was in response to a request from Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and ranking minority member of the House Government Reform Committee, numerous Democratic colleagues, and Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican.

Mr. Waxman has criticized abstinence-only programs for presenting incorrect or misguided information. Mr. Coburn, a physician in civilian life and a supporter of abstinence education, wants the Food and Drug Administration to rewrite condom labels so that they are “medically accurate.”

Abstinence program officials yesterday seemed unfazed by the GAO legal finding.

The GAO letter “confirms what Project Reality’s abstinence programs are already doing — providing the most recent data, according to the [National Institutes on Health], on the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy,” said Libby Macke, the Illinois group’s executive director.

The National Abstinence Leadership Council, which has officers from 10 pro-abstinence groups, said that although there is no consistent definition of “medical accuracy,” only research-based data from clearly identified sources should be used.

Bill Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States applauded the GAO legal finding and warned that if HHS fails to comply with it, the issue could “end up in the courts.”

“It is never acceptable for publicly funded health or education programs to lie to young people or ply them with half-truths,” Mr. Smith said.

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