The Right Wing on Mathematica’s Reports

William Smith is Vice President for Public Policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

I remember being with several colleagues in 2002 preparing for a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives. About ten minutes before the hearing was supposed to start, a knock at the door of a small office in which we had huddled brought an interim report from Mathematica Policy Research. Mathematica had been funded by the federal government to conduct an entirely voluntary evaluation of programs receiving funding under Title V. The hearing was centered on the reauthorization of the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program which delivers $50 million in federal funds each year to states. Of course, we thought the timing was highly suspect to say the least, but this interim report (PDF) said nothing of import. It reported out on a great deal of process but included no data whatsoever on behavioral impacts.

The lack of findings in this interim report did not stop the Republican majority at that time from declaring that the report showed that this program was working. In fact, Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who was then Chairman of the committee where the hearing was taking place, literally held up a copy of the report during his opening remarks and said it declared these programs were working and should be reauthorized. It was all blue smoke and mirrors—deliberate misrepresentation of the worst kind—but even by then this had been par for the course for a White House hell-bent on advancing an ideological agenda without respect for scientific integrity.

Then, in 2005, another interim report (PDF) was released by Mathematica. "New HHS Study Confirms Abstinence Education" shouted the headline of the Abstinence Clearinghouse's press release when this report came out. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services's (HHS) own press release said, "Students who are in these programs are recognizing that abstinence is a positive choice." It went on to say, "Abstinence education programs that help our young people address issues of healthy relationships, self-esteem, decision-making, and effective communications are important to keeping them healthy and safe. We need to build the scientific knowledge base on abstinence education programs, so we know what works and what needs improvement." Again, no actual behaviors were measured.

Now, on Friday the 13th of April, the final report on these programs comes and this time, it actually reports on behavioral impact—or lack there of. After almost ten years of funding approaching three-quarters of a billion dollars in federal and state money and consistent spin from the ideologues, what we have is a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

I suppose it should not come as a surprise that, after embracing previous reports from the exact same group on the exact same programs, every mouthpiece of the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry is now discounting the report, its findings, and in some cases, the researchers themselves.

For example, the Medical Institute (formerly the Medical Institute for Sexual Health) said the findings merely pointed to the need of more funding for programs and more research (PDF). No, really. In defending the indefensible, the Medical Institute says—straight-faced—that this is merely a clarion call to spend more money. Keep in mind, of course, that the Medical Institute was once just Governor Bush's go-to on abstinence-only in Texas and is now a dominant force in the industry. And of course, over the past four fiscal years, the Medical Institute has benefited from more than half a million in Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage money.

The Abstinence Clearinghouse, struggling to maintain some credibility after trumpeting previous findings from Mathematica, did something quite novel in its press release. First, its release came at least two hours before the report was actually even released by HHS. And second, instead of mentioning Mathematica by name, it pulled a shell game. The press release deceptively read "Abstinence Education Programs Proven Effective" and then goes on to list the junk science of 10 programs that the Clearinghouse tries to spin as evidence. Nice try.

Most interestingly, despite weighing in effusively with releases on the two interim reports, HHS did not issue a press release about the final Mathematica report. Instead, Harry Wilson at HHS' Administration for Children and Families, the agency who runs the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program, distanced himself from the findings and basically told the Associated Press that what we need are more programs over longer periods of time.

I suppose that, if this were the first study, one could argue that more funding and more research are still called for. But we are not talking about a single study. We are talking about $1.5 billion dollars of taxpayer money over more than 25 years and a complete lack of evidence to show it has made a difference in helping young people behave more responsibly. It hasn't.

The Mathematica final report could not have been more timely as the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program expires at the end of June. The evidence is clear comprehensive programs—programs that complement and augment the education that young people are getting at home, programs that a majority Americans support—are the way to go. It is time to pull the plug on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

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