Congressional abstinence hearing a one-sided 'circus'

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WASHINGTON — Supporters of abstinence education were disappointed April 23 that Rep. Henry Waxman, who is pro-choice, apparently used his position as chairman of a House committee to organize a one-sided panel of experts to attack the effectiveness of abstinence programs ahead of important funding appropriations discussions.

"This was really a circus to try to move an ideological agenda, and that was to defund abstinence education," Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association in Washington, told Baptist Press.

Ironically, Waxman's opening remarks before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform included the statement that "we must base our policy on the best available science and evidence, not ideology."

Waxman, D.-Calif., invited a panel of seven experts who spoke against abstinence education and one who spoke in favor of it. The only other person on the panel to support abstinence education was Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., who was one of two members of Congress called to testify.

Huber, who attended the hearing, said the most astounding piece of information that came out of the proceedings was the response the panelists gave to a question from Rep. Virginia Foxx, R.-N.C., who asked, "If abstinence education programs were shown to be effective, would you support funding them?"

"She asked this to those who were brought in supposedly as objective experts on this, looking only at the effectiveness," Huber recounted. "With the exception of one other witness besides our own, every single one of them said, 'No. Even if it were shown to be effective, we would not support its funding.'

"... I was actually glad that Mr. Waxman had this hearing if only to reveal the disingenuous nature of this whole argument," Huber said. "In his opening comments he said he wanted to put ideology aside — assuming that it was abstinence educators who were ideological — and look solely at the science.

"By his opening statements, he was suggesting that these experts were brought in for their scientific and research knowledge and because they were heads of national organizations and associations concerned with health, but the fact of the matter is they were brought in just to say the same ideological talking points that Mr. Waxman wanted to be said," she added. "They were putting aside their professional objectivity to push an ideological agenda."

Further into the hearing, Waxman asked the panel why they would not fund abstinence education if they knew it was effective, and Margaret Blythe, a witness representing the American Academy of Pediatrics, said it was because students need more information for their sex lives. Others nodded in agreement, Huber said, standing by their testimonies that comprehensive sex education – which promotes methods for sexual activity along with contraceptive ideas — is the best option in a culture that assumes teenagers are going to fornicate.

In addition to the experts, one of the witnesses was a 21-year-old "sexual health educator" named Shelby Knox, who identified herself as "born and raised in a Southern Baptist family in Lubbock, Texas."

"At 15, in accordance with my faith, I took a virginity pledge as part of a ceremony at my church," Knox told the House committee. "Even though I was well past puberty, I still held an embarrassingly vague notion of the physiological definition of the act we were told to avoid.

"The pastor reiterated throughout the virginity pledge discussion how disappointed our parents, church and future spouse would be if we relinquished our virginity before marriage," Knox said.

"... As a young person with first-hand experience about the misinformation, shame, guilt and intolerance propagated by these programs, I urge you to eliminate funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and instead to allocate those funds to comprehensive, medically accurate sex education that provides young people with the tools they need to make responsible, informed decisions about their sexual health," she added.

Stan Weed, director of the Utah-based Institute for Research and Evaluation, was the lone non-Congressional expert testifying on behalf of abstinence education, one day after he presented a study at the National Press Club which found that students receiving abstinence education were about one-half as likely to initiate sexual activity as students who did not receive abstinence education.

"Dr. Weed stated multiple times, to a mostly deaf committee, that the same evaluation standards need to be applied to contraceptive-focused sex education as to abstinence-until-marriage education," Linda Klepacki, a sexual health analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said.

"He went on to say that of 115 peer-reviewed studies of contraceptive-focused education, not one was found to decrease sexually transmitted infection rates," Klepacki said. "Additionally, Dr. Weed clarified that consistent condom use has been shown to be a 100 percent failure."

John Santelli, a medical department chair from Columbia University, listed concerns he had regarding abstinence-only education.

"Abstinence-only-until-marriage as a program goal is out of touch with broad demographic trends toward both an earlier age at first sex and a later age at marriage. Indeed, 95 percent of Americans have intercourse prior to marriage," Santelli said, referring to a study from 2006 conducted by the research arm of Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider.

Santelli also said the decline in teenage pregnancy rates in the United States can be attributed to better contraceptive use among adolescents rather than to a rise in the number of abstinence education programs offered in the nation's schools.

"Congress should end federal support for abstinence-only programs that require withholding potentially life-saving information," Santelli recommended.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said Waxman's hostility to abstinence education was clearly on display at what Perkins called a "biased hearing."

"Chairman Waxman's well-known support for radical causes such as abortion on demand and for so-called 'comprehensive' sex education should not detract from the true benefits of abstinence education programs," Perkins said in a press release April 23. "... I urge members of Congress to support President Bush's request for $151 million for community-based abstinence education programs."

Huber said concerned citizens should take advantage of the opportunity to tell their representatives where they stand on the matter.

"This is a very important period of time for those who are supportive of abstinence education to have maybe more than their normal amount of leverage with their own members of Congress because they are realizing that they have to be responsive to their constituents if they want to be re-elected in November," she said, adding that appropriations discussions are expected to commence within a few weeks.

To voice your position on abstinence education funding, call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121.

• Tom Davis, Virginia, ranking minority member
• Brian Bilbray, California
• Dan Burton, Indiana
• Chris Cannon, Utah
• John J. Duncan Jr., Tennessee
• Virginia Foxx, North Carolina
• Darrell E. Issa, California
• Jim Jordan, Ohio
• Kenny Marchant, Texas
• Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina
• John M. McHugh, New York
• John L. Mica, Florida
• Bill Sali, Idaho
• Mark E. Souder, Indiana
• Michael Turner, Ohio
• Lynn A. Westmoreland, Georgia