William Smith is Vice President for Public Policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Things this week at Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have once again exceeded the bounds of credibility. Early in the week, news came that prominent abstinence-only-until-marriage promoter Patricia Sulak had been asked to join the CDC’s Advisory Committee on HIV and STD Prevention. Sulak’s silly and self-congratulatory presentation at this year’s national STD conference, which can be heard here, should have been more than enough to disqualify her from the advisory committee.
Then came news that an anti-contraception champion and “medical director” of a crisis pregnancy center, Eric Keroack, would take over the Title X family planning program at HHS. Keroack currently works for A Woman’s Concern, a Massachusetts-based recipient of major abstinence-only-until-marriage funding. Keroack’s predecessor never advocated for a single additional dollar for Title X family planning during her tenure, but his appointment is a classic example of the fox in the hen house.
Figures like Sulak and Keroack only rise to positions of import in what my colleague James Wagoner has aptly called the “flat earth society.” And, unfortunately, despite the mid-term election we’re still in one.
But on Thursday, for the second time in a month, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) brought a bit of reality to the fore and fired off more damning evidence against the administration’s massive expansion of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
The GAO report, the result of a Congressional request led by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), concluded that the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the agency administering the bulk of abstinence-only-until-marriage money, was not screening grantees to make sure that funded materials were medically accurate. GAO also found that HHS was falling far short in sufficiently staying on top of evaluating programs to make sure that the $1 billion-plus of tax money being spent will make a positive difference on adolescent behaviors.
This comes as no big surprise to those of us familiar with these issues, and our noise on the outside has contributed to getting this report from the inside. The inside/outside dynamic matters not just because of the mounting evidence and the affirmation that we are on the right track, but also because ACF has officially responded to the GAO; whereas we are easily ignored, their response is just laughable.
ACF admits—two years after the Waxman report revealed serious medical inaccuracies in the majority of the most popular abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula— that it does not monitor for medical accuracy in programs. But, ACF explains that it does require programs to assure programs are “true and correct.” Is this public health or an honor code in an elementary school? The GAO is clear: “ACF cannot be assured that the materials used in its State and Community-Based Programs are accurate.” ACF is indifferent and seems content to continue shoveling money out the door to folks like Sulak and Keroak with little more than a pinky swear promise that their programs will be accurate.
On the issue of evaluation though, HHS’ response to the GAO’s findings can only be described as either delusional or deliberately deceptive. HHS’ argument is basically that it is trying. Twenty-five years of funding and almost a billion and half dollars put into these programs and the best HHS can come up with is that it’s trying?
As reported in our earlier analysis of the new requirements under the largest pot of abstinence-only-until-marriage money, HHS has gutted, not strengthened, attempts at gathering behavioral measurements and instead, requests that grantees gather very basic process information like the number of youth served in a program and the number of hours of instruction.
It is not by coincidence that the same day the GAO report was released, an announcement appeared in the wonky Federal Register that ACF would be conducting a public opinion survey to support its mission of the no-sex, get married approach. A new Congress, with Waxman as head of oversight in the House, must be a bit frightening for a program that has funneled so much money to social conservatives with so little evidence and accountability.
Lord Acton said “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And I might add, in the case of ACF, leads to delusional thinking. We’ll be working with the new Congress to keep up the drumbeat against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and ensure that it exercises the oversight that the repudiated leadership of the last Congress refused to provide. You can help, go to www.nomoremoney.org