I’ve spent the week wondering why, while 25,000 people in Toronto and almost every major media outlet has focused in on AIDS, the radical right-wing groups who claim to be “pro-life” have been dead silent about the world’s biggest preventable killer. Focus on the Family? Concerned Women for America? Family Research Council? Nothing to say. But then a little blink from my RSS reader alerted me to a new article posted on LifeSiteNews.com on Tuesday afternoon: they had proved us wrong, and had actually taken time to talk about the conference. And what, might you guess, did they have to say?
First, author Hilary White makes some nonsense claim about delegates at the conference being told that the “only hope for stopping the AIDS crisis in Africa is more condoms.” She must have missed the discussions of ARVs, microbicides, faithfulness education, the need for more health care providers, destigmatization of sex workers, and the need for gender equity and changing harmful cultural norms that hurt women. Or perhaps, once again, we have an example of an obsession with ideological concerns getting in the way of reason (and of accurate reporting).
Moving along, Ms. White did have another reason to write her article. There is a new study from a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania that she claims refutes many of the claims about problems with “abstinence-only” education that have been voiced by many HIV and reproductive health advocates. The study was presented at the conference this week, and as of yet is not published in an accessible form. But we know it makes two conclusions: that students who receive abstinence-only education might delay onset of sexual activity until later in life, and that there was no clear sign that those students were less likely than their peers to use condoms when they became sexually active.
While it is hard to comment conclusively about the study without having read it (did LifeSiteNews.com somehow get a copy?), there are a few concerns about the description of the study and the way its conclusions are being used. First, it was a study of children ages 10-15, and the average age for first sexual intercourse in America is around 16 – it is not looking at children who are statistically likely to be sexually active. But some certainly would be… So, ok. Fine. It might not be a perfect study, but it appears to have been well-crafted otherwise.
Second, the article on LifeSiteNews makes a stark comparison between “abstinence” education, and “safer sex” education, a distinction that is made in the study. What the article does not include in its evaluation of the study is that there were two alternatives to “abstinence-only” education in the study: “safer sex,” which meant no mention of abstinence, and “comprehensive” education, which included accurate information about contraception as well as information about abstinence. According to the abstract for the study, differences between the “abstinence-only” programs and the “comprehensive” programs were almost statistically insignificant (where “p” must be equal to or less than .05 to be considered statistically significant).
Ms. White’s alarmist language about AIDS activists hating abstinence, loving condoms, etc., does not change the reality that there are very few (if any) groups advocating that students not be taught about abstinence as an option. Most advocates suggest rather that students be taught about different options, and that their education about abstinence should also include available information about contraception and preventing the spread of disease when they do become sexually active. The battle is not over abstinence. It is over the intentional withholding of information about proven health strategies. It is over the denial of an accurate education for ideological reasons.
So what can we conclude from this article that continues on with a tirade about the Ugandan “ABC” program’s success, after emphasizing that an “A-only” program is the author’s preference? (And that quotes Joseph D’Agostino, Population Research Institute’s VP of Communications – a PR specialist – as a “researcher”…yikes!)
For one, we might conclude that it jumped to some dramatic conclusions about this new study that appears to establish that abstinence-only programs might be helpful for middle schoolers. We also might conclude that LifeSiteNews.com is carrying a bright torch for their camp’s ideological perspective, even if they accomplish little else in regards to the fight against AIDS. Hilary White’s use of invective and her misrepresentation of the facts reveals the lack of strength in her argument – it holds up much better once she creates a false enemy who would rather kill “uncountable millions of Africans by encouraging them to sexual promiscuity” than teach abstinence. Where is that enemy? Besides in her head?
On an occasion when they could be taking up a good cause, they’re only trying to stir up their supporters to indignation with some dramatically stated half-truths. Is this all we get from supposed diehard “pro-lifers” when the rest of the world gathers to talk about AIDS? I’d hope not, but so far, it’s not looking so good.