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Bringing in the Sheaths

Safe-sex education is losing out to no-sex education

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The panelists at the Feb. 15 forum "The Secret War on Condoms" offered lots of reasons why condoms were a good thing: Used correctly, they prevent pregnancy and the spread of AIDS and other scourges. But by the end of the 90-minute-long forum, one sensed that the best reason to encourage use of condoms may be that, if they'd been used more widely in the past, George W. Bush might never have been conceived.

 

A crowd of 50 in Carnegie Mellon University's Porter Hall heard the panelists lash the Bush administration for its actions on sex education, abortion and other reproductive issues. The administration is spending tens of millions of dollars on abstinence-only education, while funding for more thorough sex-education programs goes wanting. Government agencies have been pressured to suppress findings that don't support Bush's pro-life, abstinence-only stance, the panelists contended, and no Bush judicial appointee has endorsed the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

 

Despite abstinence-only claims to the contrary, "I don't think condoms cause people to have sex any more than an umbrella causes rain," contended Dr. Stephen Thomas, the director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Minority Health. Yet if fundamentalist ideology is supplanting scientific evidence, he argued, scientists have only themselves to blame. "They are winning because far too many of us are silent," he warned -- and "there is no guarantee that we will not go backwards."

 

The problems are especially pressing in Pennsylvania, said Brenda Green, vice president for education at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. Strict limits on abortion have put the Commonwealth among the dozen most repressive states -- including Alabama, where "until 16 months ago it was illegal to own a vibrator," Green noted. And government agencies aren't the only institutions trying to quiet the debate: "Sometimes we're banned from participating in health fairs because we either want to hand out condoms or instructions about how to use them."

 

No one was on hand to take the Bush administration's side of the argument but even C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general appointed by conservative paragon Ronald Reagan, opined in 1986 that "the need" for thorough sex-education programs "is critical and the price of neglect is high." Given those successes, contended Dr. Marian Michaels of the Pediatric HIV Center of Children's Hospital, "The true war on condoms in our country is that in 2004 many of our institutions ... still believe it is controversial to talk about condoms." Numerous studies have suggested that, whether combined with instruction on the benefits of abstinence or not, sex-ed programs that include condoms can reduce the transmission of AIDS and unwanted pregnancy -- without encouraging more sexual activity.

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