Abstinence-only advocates spread falsehoods on cable

Proponents of abstinence-only sexual education curricula for public schools took to the airwaves to respond to charges contained in a report issued by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) that found that “over 80%” of the curricula of federally funded abstinence-only education programs “contain false, misleading or distorted information about reproductive health.” But in attempting to counter these charges, these advocates proffered more misinformation.

In particular, the Waxman report found that a curriculum prepared by pro-abstinence group Project Reality says that “the popular claim that 'condoms help prevent the spread of STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]' is not supported by the data.” In defending the curricula on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, Project Reality director Libby Gray falsely claimed that “condoms do not provide protection against the most commonly sexually transmitted disease, which is HPV, or human papilloma virus.”

In fact, the American Social Health Association's (ASHA) National HPV & Cervical Cancer Resource Center, in a report on "HPV Myths and Misconceptions," noted: “Studies have shown condom use can lower the risk of acquiring HPV infection.” Because HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, condoms cannot prevent the disease entirely, but they do provide some degree of protection.

That didn't stop Gray and other conservative abstinence-only advocates from repeating the false claim throughout the day:

  • LIBBY GRAY: "[O]ne thing I really want to make sure is clear is that comprehensive sex education programs do a lot of misleading of kids. They are actually ignoring the fact that condoms do not provide protection against the most commonly sexually transmitted disease, which is HPV, or human papilloma virus, which is the cause of all or nearly all of cervical cancer." [MSNBC, Scarborough Country, 12/2/04]
  • GENEVIEVE WOOD (vice president for communications for the conservative Family Research Council): “Maybe you don't care about this because you are a man, but the HPV virus, which is the leading cause of cervical cancer in this country -- you are not protected from that by a condom. That hurts a lot of women in this country. And when you tell teenage girls that using a condom, being with a boyfriend who uses a condom is going to keep them safe, that's a lie. And you guys have to own up to that.” [CNN, Crossfire, 12/2/04]
  • DR. JOE S. McILHANEY JR. (president of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health): “Let me tell you, Paula, that right now, today, about 25 to 50 percent of sexually active adolescents are infected with human papilloma virus, and condoms give almost no protection against the sexual transmission of that disease, and it's the cause of 99 percent of cervical cancer and precancer that is impacting hundreds of thousands of people in our country today.” [CNN, Paula Zahn Now, 12/2/04]

The suggestion that HPV leads to cervical cancer is also misleading. While it's true that certain “high risk” cases of HPV can evolve into cervical cancer if not detected, ASHA reports that “most women with high-risk HPV on their cervix will not develop cervical cancer.” And the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) explains that HPV is extremely common and that "[m]ost people who become infected with HPV will not have any symptoms and will clear the infection on their own." According to the CDC:

Approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives. By age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired genital HPV infection. About 6.2 million Americans get a new genital HPV infection each year. ... Very rarely, HPV infection results in anal or genital cancers. ... Research has shown that for most women (90 percent), cervical HPV infection becomes undetectable within two years.

The CDC report adds that while the exact extent to which condoms protect against HPV is undetermined, “condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer.”