‘Abstinence Only’ Undermines the War on HIV/AIDS

Conservative Republican Senator Rick Santorum, from my home state of Pennsylvania, recently reiterated his longstanding support for the global war against HIV/AIDS by touting the passage of the new omnibus appropriations bill, which includes $2.9 billion in HIV/AIDS funding.

While I rarely agree with Senator Santorum on most issues, I applaud his commitment to fighting the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, and I commend Congress for funding this effort. However, along with the funding, Congress needs to address some spending policies that are having a negative impact on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. Perhaps foremost among these concerns is the promotion of “abstinence-only” sex education.

Although George W. Bush made HIV/AIDS a centerpiece of his 2003 State of the Union address, his global HIV/AIDS legislative initiative (PL-108-25) included a congressional earmark requiring one-third of U.S. AIDS prevention funds to be utilized for “abstinence-until-marriage” programs which do not include instruction on safe sex. The result is less money for other proven methods of preventing HIV transmission, such as education about condom use and the provision of condoms.

The law also allows faith-based groups that receive federal funds to refuse to provide information about condoms and other proven methods of protection, and to refuse to make referrals to clinics and other providers that do dispense such information and services.

While abstinence is certainly an effective method of preventing HIV/AIDS as well as other sexually-transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy, abstinence-only education is impractical and downright dangerous when implemented to the exclusion of a broader and more inclusive approach to sex education.

While most people who choose to abstain from sex until marriage surely have the best of intentions, history and statistics have shown that, all too often, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Peer pressure, a couple of beers, or just plain old raging hormones can cloud the judgment of even the most strong-willed proponents of abstinence.

Indeed, a report released in September 2004 by Advocates for Youth, a program that fosters decision-making responsibility in young people, showed that these abstinence-only programs have had no long-term success in delaying sexual initiation or reducing sexual risk-taking behaviors. An independent analysis of recent federal data also shows little reduction in teens’ sexual risk behavior nationwide since the federal abstinence-only initiative began.

When abstinence is broken, people need to be prepared to protect themselves against infection or unwanted pregnancy. Instead, the Bush administration’s abstinence-only approach leaves them ignorant and ill-prepared to deal with the physical and emotional consequences of sexual activity.

And it’s not only our teens who are at risk from this reckless legislation. Adults, in particular the poor and undereducated, often rely on federally funded programs for their sex education and family planning information, counseling, and supplies. Some of these adults include married couples seeking advice on responsible birth control and disease prevention. How can the Bush administration possibly justify its message to these people that essentially instructs them to abstain or die?

By pandering to the religious right with this kind of legislation, the Bush administration is, in effect, forcibly imposing its own moral beliefs onto the rest of us who may or may not agree. And evidence suggests that the majority of Americans do not agree.

A 1999 study by Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) on how Americans feel about sex education for young people reveals “an unprecedented level of support for sexuality education that includes both abstinence and information about contraception and condoms.” The report goes on to state that “seven out of 10 Americans oppose the provision of federal funds for education promoting abstinence-only-until-marriage that prohibits teaching about the use of condoms and contraception for the prevention of unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and STDs.”

Responsible sex education leads to responsible sexual behavior. The converse is also true. In life-and-death matters like HIV/AIDS prevention, we have a moral obligation to provide realistic programs for disease prevention and sex education, not one-sided government-censored information rooted in sanctimony and denial.

The money that Congress has allocated towards fighting HIV/AIDS could make for a good start. Now they need to reform the policies that prevent us from getting the most for our money.

In the war on HIV/AIDS, we must leave no stone unturned.

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