Doctors without condoms

A conservative institute gets funding to teach medical students sex ed.

Published April 13, 2006 9:52PM (EDT)

On Tuesday Slate gave us another reason to love the Bush administration. A group called the Medical Institute "has finagled $200,000 out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a sexual health curriculum for doctors in training." OK, sex ed consultants for med students, not necessarily a bad thing if they are actually teaching them about sexual health. Unfortunately, the group's core message is "the behavior choices necessary for optimal health are sexual abstinence for unmarried individuals and faithfulness within marriage."

Funnily enough, despite its message, the institute distances itself from "abstinence-only" language, probably because, as Slate points out, according to this poll, most Americans don't believe that abstinence only works. The institute "secured CDC backing for its med school curriculum by way of a congressional earmark" -- gotta love the pork! -- but is not disclosing which members of Congress intervened on its behalf.

Although pork has become standard fare for how pet projects get funded in this country, "earmarks in public health are almost unheard of," Slate reports. Jonathan Zenilman, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, said: "I worked for CDC between 1985 and 1989 and have worked closely with them since leaving, and have never seen this type of funding mechanism for STD-related work."

By now government funding of abstinence-only projects is hardly news, but what's particularly frightening is the role the institute has played, with other conservative groups, in trying to prop up the idea that condoms do not protect against the human papillomavirus (HPV), some strands of which are linked to cervical cancer. In 2000, the institute was instrumental in getting the National Institutes of Health to conduct a "large-scale assessment of the effectiveness of condoms." In 2001, the NIH confirmed that condoms can prevent transmission of HIV and gonorrhea, "but said there wasn't enough data to support the same conclusion about herpes, chlamydia and HPV."

Conservative groups including the Medical Institute had a field day with this data, saying that premarital sex is never safe and absurdly linking promiscuity to cancer. But since the original condom study, more information has come out concluding that women who use condoms 100 percent of the time are 70 percent less likely to contract HPV than those who use condoms just 5 percent of the time.

The real concern now is that as a vaccine to protect women against HPV is nearing FDA approval, will conservatives be in the awkward position of fighting against a vaccine that could prevent cancer because it undermines their abstinence-only message? The institute says it will not to fight the vaccine but promises to continue to educate future doctors on the limits of condoms and dubiousness of safe sex.

This, folks, is sexual education the American way.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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