Saturday, November 18, 2006

Government censured on family planning policies

Government censured on family planning policies
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A congressional report has criticized the Bush administration for failing to check if federally funded abstinence-only programs actually work to curb teen sex.

Advocacy groups joined the criticism, and also attacked the appointment of a top family planning official who they say opposes any use of contraceptives.

The advocates said both developments showed the government of President George W. Bush was determined to impose a deeply conservative Christian agenda onto federal programs.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the Health and Human Services Department was funding controversial abstinence-only programs without checking to see whether they reduced teen pregnancy rates.

The GAO report focused on three abstinence programs that received $158 million in federal funding last year.

"Efforts by HHS and states to assess the scientific accuracy of materials used in abstinence-until-marriage education programs have been limited," the GAO report reads.

Several studies have suggested that abstinence-only education does not reduce teen pregnancy rates. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds high rates of teen sex even after several years of government-funded abstinence education programs.

"In 2005, 46.8 percent of high school students reported that they have ever had sexual intercourse, with 14.3 percent of students reporting that they had had sexual intercourse with four or more persons," the GAO report reads.

HHS said it does review whether its programs work.

"There is no mention in the report that grantees are now required to spend at least 15 percent of their federal funding on evaluation activities," the HHS said in its response.

"Depending on the amount of the project, this amount could be up to $450,000 over five years for each grant awarded."

Some advocacy groups have long criticized the abstinence policy.

"As a public health agency, it is their job to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not spent to spread misinformation and half-truths with potentially life-threatening consequences," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth.

Groups were also angry about the appointment of Dr. Erik Keroack as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, a job in which he will advise HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt on teen pregnancy and abstinence programs.

Keroack was formerly the medical director of A Woman's Concern, a network of pregnancy health centers in Massachusetts that advise against the use of contraception and advocate abstinence as a way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

"The appointment of anti-birth control, anti-sex education advocate Dr. Eric Keroack to oversee the nation's family planning program is striking proof that the Bush administration remains dramatically out of step with the nation's priorities," said Cecile Richards, President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The group's Web site at had removed most references to contraception but Planned Parenthood had cached versions.

"AWC staff and volunteers will not distribute brochures, books or other materials that advocate and promote the use of contraception," the cached Web page reads.

HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. John Agwunobi defended the appointment.

"Dr. Keroack is highly qualified and a well-respected physician. He has served as an obstetrician/gynecologist in private practice and non-profit settings, working primarily with women and girls in crisis," Agwunobi said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington)