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Groups launch
federal challenge to abstinence-only education

Groups launch
federal challenge to abstinence-only education

Two organizations that promote sex education are taking an unorthodox approach in their fight against federal funding of abstinence-only education programs. Relying on a little-used law that allows "affected persons" to seek the correction of information disseminated by federal agencies, the groups said Tuesday that the abstinence education programs contain erroneous and ineffective information. They have asked the Department of Health and Human Services to correct it.

About three quarters of the challenges made under the two-year-old Information Quality Act have come from industry groups concerned about regulations.

The two sex ed organizations, Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, support educating youth about contraceptives as a means of avoiding pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

"Turnabout is fair play," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth. "We'll use this and any other tool at our disposal to ensure that youth receive honest and accurate sex education."

The groups claim that the curriculum used by most community-based abstinence education grantees contains false information. They called on the Administration for Children and Families to cease sponsorship of programs that fail to provide medically accurate information. For example, dozens of grantees teach that condom use reduces the risk of contracting HIV by 69% to 90%. The two groups say that such instruction greatly underestimates the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV and that the numbers result from a study that the department itself described as having conclusions based on "serious error."

"Never in recent history has so much government money been put into so many programs with so little oversight and so little proven impact," Wagoner said.

Federal officials did not have immediate reaction to the challenge. Wade Horn, who oversees the Administration for Children and Families, told Congress earlier this year that when it takes up welfare reform legislation, it should continue funding the abstinence programs. He said abstinence education has helped people develop the self-discipline to say no to sex. "They help people develop inner strength, help them take charge of their lives, and redirect their energies into healthy and productive choices," Horn said. "While the evidence is still being collected, we are seeing the benefits of a strong abstinence message."

Congress held its first hearing on the Information Quality Act just two months ago. Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly support the legislation because they say the data used by federal regulators must be correct, noting that otherwise, every activity that relies on the data will have flawed results.

Opponents of the legislation said that petitioners challenging government data are trying to delay or weaken government regulation--to the detriment of society as a whole.

A report on the act by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Services shows that many challenges are over rather routine matters. For instance, a challenge filed with the National Archives seeks to correct the identity of individuals listed in a photograph of President Nixon and Elvis Presley. Others are more substantive. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Salt Institute filed a petition challenging the government's finding that reduced sodium consumption will result in lower blood pressure in all individuals. (AP)

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