Abstinence Education: Bias on the Hill and in the Press

Abstinence education got the shaft yesterday in a congressional hearing and the mainstream media, unsurprisingly, have largely failed to report on it.  Those that did, namely the Los Angeles Times and Reuters, carried stories that were as biased as the hearing itself.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has been transparent about his plans to get rid of federal funding of abstinence-only education.  As chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Waxman convened a hearing in which a vast majority of those testifying supported his agenda.

The LA Times, Waxman's hometown paper, did its part to support the anti-abstinence agenda as well.  In the article “Federal funding of abstinence-only sex education programs debated” reporter Sarah White quoted four pro-comprehensive sex education advocates and no pro-abstinence witnesses.

The first two paragraphs of her story set the tone for the whole piece.

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.

White gave the pro-abstinence message only two paragraphs, one halfway through the story and the other, which was written in a dismissive tone, at the very end.

    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.

    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.

The Reuters story, despite a heavy-handed headline (“Experts say US sex abstinence program doesn't work) gave a few more paragraphs than the LA Times to the supporters of abstinence education.

Republicans said even if some abstinence-only programs do not work, others do, and it would be wrong to end the funding.

Rep. John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican, said that it seems “rather elitist” that people with academic degrees in health think they know better than parents what type of sex education is appropriate. “I don't think it's something we should abandon,” he said of abstinence-only funding.

Charles Keckler of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the Bush administration believes abstinence education programs send the healthiest message.

Stan Weed, director of the Institute for Research and Evaluation, a Utah-based group that researches abstinence programs, disagreed with the other health experts, saying research cast doubt on the effectiveness of broader, comprehensive sex education programs.

Despite the quotes, Reuters reported the whole abstinence-only education debate in party terms, with “Republicans,” “the Bush administration” and “social conservatives” supporting abstinence-only education, and the latter also being those “who oppose the teaching of contraception methods to teenagers in schools.”

Both the LA Times and Reuters reported that abstinence-only education has received “$1.3 billion” in federal funds since the late 1990s, but they failed to put the number in context.  Neither outlet reported that federal spending on programs to promote condoms and contraceptives to youth outpaces funding for abstinence-until-marriage programs by 12 to 1, according to the Abstinence Clearinghouse.

Neither outlet reported that abstinent teens, their parents and educators attended the hearing and were not given a chance to testify.  Leslee Unruh, President of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, who was also at the hearing, said in a statement, “The greatest failure of this committee was not allowing those that were being talked about – the teens themselves – the opportunity to share how and why abstinence programs have worked for them.  I saw abstinent young adults in the audience appearing frustrated saying they wish they could share their opinion on this matter.”

Even if Rep. Waxman didn't want to hear from those teens, the LA Times and Reuters would have produced more balanced reports if their reporters had taken the time to hear the other side of the abstinence story. 

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.