Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Human Rights Watch said the Bush administration is promoting abstinence-only sex education programs at the expense of HIV prevention efforts that have long been a staple of AIDS groups serving gay men.
The activists also charged that audits of AIDS groups are being used to intimidate organizations that use many kinds of sex education and HIV prevention efforts.
“There is a broad scientific consensus that condoms are effective, when used correctly, in preventing transmission of HIV,” said Rebecca Schliefer, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, during a September 30 conference call.
The Bush administration, however, is spending over $100 million this year on abstinence only programs that cannot, by law, endorse condoms. The White House is asking for a 33 percent increase in funding for such programs in the next federal budget, according to Schliefer. The programs also provide “misinformation” about the effectiveness of condoms, Schliefer said.
The federal government has spent $350 million on abstinence only efforts since 1997, according to a recent report on such programs issued by the international human rights group.
Abstinence education programs deny children “basic information that could protect them from HIV/AIDS infection, because many such programs urge abstinence until marriage, they discriminate against gay and lesbian children.” In doing so, these programs not only interfere with fundamental rights to information, to health and to equal protection under the law, but they also place children at unnecessary risk of HIV infection and premature death.
“In the case of HIV/AIDS, what they don’t know may kill them,” the report concluded.
Staff from GMHC who joined the conference call did not dismiss abstinence education, but they said that such programs were not sufficient to address diverse populations.
“Abstinence may work, and it probably does for certain people at certain times,” said Ana Oliveira, GMHC’s executive director.
Proponents of abstinence see it as a one–size–fits–all solution, and they generally do not give safe sex education or messages about contraception in addition to abstinence information, according to Oliveira.
“Abstinence–only programs are not traditionally part of a grab bag of tools,” she said. “HIV prevention messages need to come with an array of other options. When one of the tools is singled out and promoted while other tools are flat funded... that becomes a problem. Abstinence only messages are restricted messages...We know that there is a range of options, a range of tools that are needed.”
The push for abstinence only programs comes at a time when HIV prevention programs are “grossly underfunded,” according to Gregg Gonsalvez, director of treatment advocacy and prevention at GMHC.
As the Bush administration pushes abstinence, it is also moving forward with audits of AIDS spending within the federal government as well as at private agencies that receive federal funds.
“This is actually an intimidation of existing programs that do not use an abstinence–only message,” Oliveira said.
The Department of Health and Human Services audited the Stop AIDS Project, a San Francisco group, earlier this year. Us Helping Us, an AIDS group in Washington DC, is being audited, according to Oliveira.
Sixteen AIDS groups that either protested a July 9 speech at the 14th International Conference on AIDS given by Tommy Thompson, the Health and Human Services secretary, or that later met with Thompson, are also being scrutinized. Some of those groups do not receive federal funds.
The audits have come in response to complaints from conservative members of Congress, right wing groups, and some AIDS activists. HHS officials have said that the agency must respond when it gets complaints from Congress. The audits are causing AIDS groups to think twice before they launch HIV prevention campaigns.
“We think that the effect that it has across the country is that everybody takes a double, triple moment to think: Will it call the attention of the federal government?” Oliveira said.
Mary Ann Green, a staffer at Florida AIDS Action, said AIDS groups in her state had expressed concern about the audits at a recent meeting.
“There is a fear out in the community that if they produce something or say something inappropriate, or what is deemed as inappropriate, they will lose their funding,” she said during the conference call.
Bush administration officials defend the abstinence programs.
“We believe young people across the board should abstain until marriage,” Claude Allen, an HHS deputy secretary, told the Washington Post.