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These days, I spend much of my time fuming over the Bush administration's arrogant, nasty dismissal of anyone who dares express even the teensiest reservation about the rush to war. But a recent Washington Post piece reminded me that, even as we prepare to send American troops marching into Baghdad, there are still important domestic issues over which this White House should be thoroughly and repeatedly slapped.

The Post piece details accusations by sex-education advocates and HIV-prevention groups that the Bushies are "waging a widespread campaign of disinformation and intimidation that is hampering AIDS prevention work across the country." The groups--including Advocates for Youth, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Gay Men's Health Crisis--expressed concern that a Health and Human Services (HHS) review of all grants to AIDS prevention, treatment, and research groups is in part motivated by the administration's hostility toward any form of sex ed that does not focus solely on abstinence.

HHS has also launched an investigation to determine if several AIDS programs either promote sexual activity or are too sexually explicit. By contrast, the head of Advocates for Youth told the Post, HHS has refused to conduct audits of abstinence-only programs--even after a federal court ruled that the state of Louisiana was illegally using its federal abstinence funding to promote religion.

Perhaps even more disturbing, the administration has decided that it should deny the public any health facts that don't fit into its abstinence agenda. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website was purged of information about condoms' effectiveness in preventing the spread of HIV and of the "Programs that Work" section, which discussed several comprehensive sex-ed programs.

A September report by HRW also reveals how some of the abstinence-only programs of which the White House is so enamored sponsor media campaigns that exaggerate the limitations of condoms. Now, this approach may well convince some teens to delay sex, but it could prove disastrous for others. Included in HRW's report are quotes from Texas teens who say they stopped using condoms after they or their boyfriends heard radio ads asserting that condoms don't really work. Fabulous. Just what young guys need: another pathetic excuse to avoid wearing the love glove.

Obviously, groups that believe in comprehensive sex ed are inclined to attribute the worst motives possible to the administration's actions. Our president sowed his wild oats, found Jesus, and now believes that a firm government policy of Just Say No is the only way to protect today's youth from their baser instincts. To this end, Bush has vowed to pump more and more federal dollars into abstinence-only education.

Nonetheless, there is a stunning lack of evidence that such programs are worth a damn. Most studies cited by abstinence-only advocates involve small samplings of teens, cover short periods of time, and have not been subjected to scientific peer review. The Washington Post reports that, even the initially promising "virginity pledge" programs have been found to work only when less than a third of students participate, making them feel part of an elite "moral community"; moreover, those who broke the pledge were less likely to use contraception than other students. The Institute of Medicine has concluded that abstinence-only programs constitute "poor fiscal and public health policy."

As The New York Times reported back in February, "the only proven method for reducing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, studies say, is to combine the abstinence message with one that teaches young people how to protect themselves against pregnancy and disease." Yes, condoms fail--and they offer limited protection against diseases like genital warts, which are spread by skin-to-skin contact. But they are better than nothing, especially when it comes to preventing the spread of HIV. To teach kids otherwise is a dangerous case of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good--which most parents apparently understand, since surveys show that more than two-thirds favor "abstinence-plus" education, which stresses the benefits of chastity but gives kids basic information on contraception just in case.

Trying to turn the debate into a question of fairness, President Bush has said that he simply wants to put abstinence funding on par with funding for other programs. But the implication that there's some giant pool of federal money going toward comprehensive sex-ed is shockingly dishonest. As The Washington Post noted in April, most of the money Bush categorizes as sex-ed funding is part of Title X, a federal program that gives poor women access to medical services ranging from breast exams to diabetes screening. "The parity argument is nonsense," Republican Congressman James Greenwood of Pennsylvania, told the Post. "Title X funding is not about school-based educational programs."

All that said, I might sympathize more with Bush's chastity obsession if the teen-sex situation were approaching critical mass. Instead, most indicators show it to have significantly improved over the past decade. Last week, the CDC released a report showing that, since 1991, teens have grown increasingly conservative in their sexual behavior. One of the report's authors summed up the situation for The New York Times: "We have less kids at risk than we used to have, given this combination of factors all working together--fewer kids having sex, fewer having multiple partners, and more using condoms." This trend helps explain another happy report put out by the CDC in June, tracking a decade-long drop in teen pregnancy rates.

But Bush has decided that, research and commonsense be damned, abstinence-only is the way to go. Back in February, touting his request to raise the 2003 funding for abstinence-only education to $135 million, the president asserted, "Abstinence is the surest way, and the only completely effective way, to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.... When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral."

And when our president decides that his personal moral opinions are more important than the health of this nation's young people, Congress should not be neutral. We may not be debating war here. But lives are on the line nonetheless.

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