WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is proposing to double spending on sexual abstinence programs (search) that bar any discussion of birth control or condoms to prevent pregnancy or AIDS despite a lack of evidence that such programs work.
A study by researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) on declining birth and pregnancy rates among teenagers concludes that prevention programs should emphasize abstinence and contraception.
"Both are important," said Dr. John Santelli, the lead author of the study, which has not been published.
In Minnesota, a study found that sexual activity doubled among junior high school students taking part in an abstinence-only program. The independent study, commissioned by the state's health department, recommended broadening the program to include more information about contraception.
Independent researchers who are studying abstinence-only programs for the federal government said in their first report two years ago that no reliable evidence exists whether the programs work. They are expected to issue an update soon.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush said, "We will double federal funding for abstinence programs, so schools can teach this fact of life: Abstinence for young people is the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases (search)."
Bush would spend $270 million on abstinence-only education, compared with $100 million annually when he took office.
The president also would move the programs into the same agency within the Health and Human Services Department that oversees religious-based programs and the president's proposal to promote marriage.
Advocates of comprehensive sex education said the shift, coupled with the additional money, is part of Bush's election-year appeal to conservatives.
They said the administration's proposal flies in the face of research that credits both abstinence and contraception with reducing the teenage birth rate by 30 percent in the past decade to historic lows.
"This is money, hundreds of millions of dollars that we could better spend on children and people who need the help," Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., told HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson at a hearing on the president's budget proposal.
James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth (search), a group that promotes education about birth control and condom use, said abstinence-only programs deprive teenagers of information about the effectiveness of condoms in stopping the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. "These programs have really evolved into anti-condom programs," Wagoner said.
Yet supporters of the abstinence programs said teens should be hearing more about refraining from sex.
"Kids in society are saturated with information about contraception and messages about encouraging casual, permissive sex," said Robert Rector, who helped write the administration's abstinence education program.
Rector discounted the Minnesota study as unscientific and said the CDC research does not give enough credit to abstinence.
The comprehensive sex education promoted by Advocates for Youth and other groups focuses on safe sex, not abstinence, said Rector, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank. Wagoner rejected the assertion and pointed to his group's Web site, which praises abstinence.
"Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective method for avoiding unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV," the site says.