WASHINGTON — Continued federal funding of abstinence-only sex education in public schools was debated before a House committee Wednesday amid questions about whether the government should sponsor a program that many experts say doesn't work.
Most of the 11 witnesses who appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform advocated instead for comprehensive programs that include information about how teenagers can protect themselves from pregnancy or disease if they choose to engage in sexual activity.
"The concern that many of us have with abstinence-only programs is the idea that one size fits all," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a member of the panel.
Both sides agreed that abstinence should be the core of any sex education program for teens. Concerns were raised, though, over how much information students should receive about issues such as condom use and methods of protecting against sexually transmitted diseases.
There was also discussion on the role of communities and school districts in deciding what types of sex education young people are exposed to, instead of abstinence being mandated by the government through funding.
"I see an ideological discussion versus a reality discussion," said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles). "We deal with the realities of our diversified communities."
Proponents of abstinence education argued that society should set high standards for teenage sexual behavior. They would prefer, they said, that programs focus on the emotional, physical and societal repercussions of sex outside of marriage.
But several witnesses emphasized that despite 11 years of federally funded abstinence programs, at a cost of more than $1.3 billion, teens are still having sex and becoming infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Those who support comprehensive plans said teens should get the information they need to protect themselves.
A study released in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a rise in the teenage pregnancy rate in 2006, the first such increase in 15 years. Between 1991 and 2005, the rate dropped 34%.
When the government began funding abstinence-only sex education in 1996, 49 of 50 states signed up for such programs. California did not, and it has never sought such funding. Currently, only 33 states receive federal funds for the programs.
"Seventeen states have now said they will not accept funding," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Assn. "For a health department to give up funding is a very important fact."
"Some states have looked at the federal requirements as the federal government telling them they had to only do it one way, and they didn't like it," said the committee chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills).
The federal government funds sex education programs that align to several requirements, including exclusively teaching that abstinence is the only way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections and that sexual relations are acceptable only within a married, monogamous relationship.
During the hearing, witnesses provided differing statistics about condom use and the number of sexual partners teens have after completing abstinence-only education programs.
There were even questions about whether comprehensive sex-education programs had ever received federal funding. In 2006, the government began funding family planning initiatives that provide contraceptives and information through free community clinics. These clinics are occasionally involved with teaching comprehensive sex education in public schools.
An October 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office found errors in the accuracy of information provided in some abstinence programs. The study was unable to reach any conclusions about the effectiveness of abstinence programs.
Another study, released Tuesday by the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative policy research center, reviewed 15 programs focused on abstinence education and found that in 11 of them, teenage sexual activity was significantly delayed or reduced. Several witnesses at the hearing questioned whether that study had been properly reviewed before publication.