Debate over Sex Education Heats Up

by Elizabeth Benton

Summer 2001

As temperatures in Washington rose, so did the debate over pre-marital sex and abstinence-until-marriage education. On June 28, Surgeon General David Satcher issued his, “Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior.” The comprehensive report urges a “mature, thoughtful, and respectful discussion nationwide about sexuality.” Less than a month later, the Department of Health and Human Services, under former Republican congressman Tom Coburn’s request, released a report on the effectiveness of condom use in preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The White House has distanced itself from the Surgeon General’s report and continues to assert its belief that, “abstinence and abstinence education only is the most effective way to prevent AIDS, to prevent unwanted pregnancy.”1

After a 28-member panel found insufficient evidence of the use of condoms in preventing certain STD’s, the Department of Health and Human Services reasserted its belief that there is no such thing as “safe sex” unless it is inside a mutually monogamous relationship with a non-infected partner. Coburn is now using this information to press for condom labeling, warning buyers that condoms have not been proven to be 100% effective in preventing certain STD’s. The Physicians Consortium, consisting of the former congressman, Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL), the Catholic Medical Association and a range of other physicians’ groups held a press conference on July 24th urging the immediate resignation of the Center For Disease Control’s (CDC) Director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan. The Consortium believes that the CDC “hid and misrepresented vital medical information” about condom effectiveness. The groups asked the Department of Health and Human Services to withdraw funding from agencies whose educational and promotional materials do not use what they consider to be medically accurate information. Their press release stressed the importance of abstinence-until-marriage education as the only “health model that completely protects against all STDs.”2

Surgeon General Satcher’s research could not find sufficient evidence that abstinence-until-marriage programs, such as those backed by the Physicians Consortium, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services, reduce unwanted pregnancy and STDs. On the other hand, the Surgeon General’s research found that programs emphasizing both abstinence and contraceptive measures either had no effect on the initiation of sexual activity, or delayed the initiation of sexual activity. Clinic based prevention programs, including even brief “risk-reduction messages,”3 have been shown in some studies to substantially increase condom use.

“A Call to Arms” also includes alarming statistics outlining the levels of sexually transmitted diseases, the HIV/AIDS infection, unintended pregnancy, abortion, sexual dysfunction, and sexual violence. When there are an estimated 12 million Americans becoming infected with STDs annually, the use of the Department of Health and Human Service’s report to discourage safe-sex education seems especially irresponsible. Edward W. Hook, one of the 28 panel members, commented: “People are turning around the findings to say that to promote condoms is incorrect. I think that’s a very, very dangerous thing to do. I would not want it on my conscience if somebody were to read some of those statements, decide not to use condoms when they were having sex, and acquire a disease that could change their entire life, much less end it.”4

The Department of Health and Human Service’s workshop found that while condoms have been proven effective in preventing the transmission of HIV and male gonorrhea, research has yet to show definitive proof as to whether they also prevent the transmission of syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, and HPV. 5 A response from Family Health International president Willard Cates stressed that the lack of definitive data on condoms’ effectiveness in preventing certain STDs “does not mean that they are ineffective against those diseases.” Cates pointed out that viruses are unable to pass through latex condoms.

1. “The Surgeon General Teaches Bush About Sex.”, by Bill Press.2. “Citing ‘Failed Efforts’ to Inform Public of Condom ‘Ineffectiveness,’ Physician Groups, Politicians Ask CDC Head to Resign”, Kaiser Family Foundation Daily Reproductive Health Report, 7/25/01.

3. “The Surgeon General’s Call To Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior,” July 9, 2001.

4. Washington Post “Experts Fear Condom Report’s Effects,” by Susan Okie, July 2, 2001.

5. ibid.