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Healthy skepticism

National | PUBLIC HEALTH: Are sex-ed "medical-accuracy" laws about truth-telling-or subverting public-school abstinence efforts? With new research touting the public-health benefits of abstinence ­education, the question is crucial

Issue: "Ronald Reagan: In memoriam," June 19, 2004

Memo to teen-sex advo­cates: Women who pledge to remain abstinent until marriage are about 40 percent less likely to have a child out of wedlock. That's according to data compiled by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a 10-year study of 12,000 teens, and analyzed by the ­Heritage Foundation. In a May report, Heritage Foundation researcher Robert Rector concluded that making a public or written abstinence pledge-the kind encouraged in a number of ­abstinence-only sex-education curricula -can reduce teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

Not that that will matter much to groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League, or the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. They and others are behind a state-by-state campaign to eradicate abstinence-only programs from public schools. The weapon of choice: legislation that requires sex-education curricula to be "medically accurate," a term critics say is political code for "not abstinence-only."

"You will find that the people ­promoting what they call 'medical accuracy' actually want to drive authentic abstinence out of the classroom and replace it with the latest ­version of 'safe sex,'" Mr. Rector said.

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"Medically accurate" legislation effectively outlaws abstinence-only curricula by inserting the term in state sex-education codes-then setting up safe-sex promoters like Planned ­Parenthood as arbiters of the meaning of "medically accurate." In a July 2002 speech to a group of political activists in Washington, Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt listed "medically accurate sexuality education" at the top of a five-point battle plan for fighting the Bush administration's public-health agenda.

Since then, at least 14 states have considered medical-accuracy measures. Four-California, Maine, Missouri, and Oregon-passed them in 2003 and 2004. Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have medical-accuracy bills in the pipeline now.

Boilerplate language in the bills requires that sex-ed curricula be ­"verified or supported by research conducted in compliance with ­scientific methods and published in peer-reviewed journals, and recognized as accurate and objective by professional organizations and agencies in the relevant field." Sounds reasonable, except for three problems, said Focus on the Family's Peter Brandt.

3» First, "safe-sex" promoters have a three-decade monopoly on being ­"recognized as accurate," despite the dismal failure of their contraceptive-based approach to preventing ­pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among teens. ­Meanwhile, ideological allies in the American College of Obstetricians and ­Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics routinely ­dismiss as politically or religiously tainted ­medical research generated by conservatives.

3» Second, safe-sex advocates have consistently promoted ­condoms as a panacea, while ignoring research that, while unbiased, produced inconvenient conclusions. For example, a July 2001 National Institutes of Health study showed that while condoms can prevent HIV infection, there is insufficient ­evidence to conclude that they are effective against any of the 25 other STDs, least of all the deadly human papilloma virus (HPV). But on its adolescent-sex website Teenwire, Planned Parenthood states that condoms are 85 percent to 98 percent effective, and does not qualify that percentage. "Latex condoms offer very good ­protection against HIV-the virus that can cause AIDS," the website says. "They also reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted infections, including gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, ­trichomoniasis, HPV, and herpes."

3» The third problem with the currently popular legislative definition of "medical accuracy" is with the word objective. "What supporters of medical accuracy really want is 'ideological accuracy,'" Mr. Brandt said. "This is 'medical accuracy' whereby liberal bureaucrats within public-health agencies become the arbiters of what can and cannot be said."

What they don't want said is that abstinence-and only abstinence-is safe for teens, a message public-school students have heard increasingly since George W. Bush took office. The president's 2003 federal budget included $135 million for abstinence education, a $33 million increase over the previous year. His 2005 budget proposal nearly doubles 2003 abstinence-education funding to $270 million. It is the administration's acknowledgment of the fact that teen pregnancy rates have decreased as abstinence education has increased.

"The left is faced with a White House that's open to the idea that maybe kids shouldn't be having sex at age 12," said Mr. Brandt. "We've got a House that's open to that idea, and maybe a Senate. [Opponents] now have to find other ways to sabotage abstinence-only programs." The result, said Mr. Brandt, is "an epidemic" of medical-accuracy bills.

Backers of such bills are persistent. In 2003 and 2004, Washington state lawmakers debated four of them. Hawaii handled two, and Wisconsin two during the past 12 months. While all those bills died procedural deaths, some keep returning, as in New Jersey where a medically accurate measure lawmakers killed off in 2003 has crawled back onto 2004's legislative calendar.

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