And the Handmaiden’s Tale gets one step closer to true…

Why are some nonprofit organizations that don’t agree with the Bush administration’s “abstinence only” philosophy repeatedly investigated by the government, while faith-based groups get a free pass?

By Christopher Healy

Saddam Hussein,
Osama bin Laden, condoms: George W. Bush has a lot of enemies. And the
question is finally starting to be asked, just what steps is his
administration willing to take in order to silence them? Network
anchormen and coffee-break pundits alike were abuzz over the
did-they-or-didn’t-they CIA leak scandal. But the outing of Valerie
Plame isn’t the only instance where the federal government has been
suspected of using its resources in direct, if somewhat sneaky,
retaliation against its political opponents. Ruining the lives of CIA
agents may make for dynamic headlines, but recent evidence shows that
the Bush administration also has much smaller fish to fry.

Take Advocates for Youth,
a national nonprofit organization that provides teens with accurate and
informative sex education. In 18 years as a federal grantee, it has
never been subjected to a government financial audit. That is, until it
was suddenly hit with three in less than a year (one by the Centers for
Disease Control back in October 2002, a second by the General
Accounting Office in early 2003, and the third just two months ago, by
a different arm of the CDC). The organization is crying conspiracy —
saying that it’s being unfairly targeted because of its negative views
toward the administration’s abstinence-only education policies — and
the claims appear to be more than just paranoia.

In July 2001 the
Washington Post published a leaked memo from the Department of Health
and Human Services in which Advocates for Youth was described as
“ardent critics of the Bush administration.” This charge apparently
came as the result of several Advocates for Youth press releases that
railed against the president’s backing of the “global gag rule” that
prohibited any funding to foreign agencies that performed or
facilitated abortions. In the leaked memo, it was also suggested that
the Advocates for Youth programs did not go over well with the HHS
because “the secretary [Tommy Thompson] is a devout Roman Catholic.”

While Advocates
for Youth may be near the top of Tommy Thompson’s Most Wanted list, it
is certainly not alone. After a group of activists booed Thompson at an
international AIDS conference in Barcelona last year, a cadre of
congressional Republicans called for investigations of the hecklers’
various organizations. The CDC has conducted three reviews in the past
10 months of San Francisco’s STOP AIDS
program in an effort to make sure that none of its federal grant
dollars have gone toward funding workshops that may promote sexual
activity. And the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education
Council of the United States (SIECUS)
has been audited twice this year (its first audits ever, despite a
decade of receiving federal grants), evidently because it created No New Money for Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs,

a Web site designed to educate the public about the possible dangers of
abstinence-only education and to call for grassroots campaigns against
the continued funding of these programs.

So far,
Advocates for Youth, STOP AIDS and SIECUS have come through all of
their audits with flying colors. But last year, as it turns out, a
number of federal grantees were found guilty of misusing their
government money. They were faith-based organizations.

In Louisiana, a
number of sex-education programs funded by Gov. Mike Foster’s Program
on Abstinence were found guilty in a federal court of openly violating
the constitutional tenet of separation of church and state. The
American Civil Liberties Union sued the governor’s program after
discovering numerous violations, including the use of grant money to
teach abstinence through scripture, to perform skits with Christ as a
character, to purchase Bibles, and to fund prayer vigils at abortion
clinics. Though those Louisiana nonprofits are now required to turn in
regular reports to the governor about their activities, none, to date,
have been put before an HHS audit.

“Our complaint
is not with getting audited,” says Advocates’ president James Wagoner.
“Our complaint is with the selective and political nature of these
audits. Ideology is invading — if not subverting — science within the
Department of Health and Human Services [which houses the CDC], and we
ended up on the audit table because we are one of the organizations
pointing that out.”

Advocates for
Youth has continually stood behind its time-tested, research-backed
policy of comprehensive sex education and HIV prevention, as opposed to
adopting the Bush-backed method of abstinence-only education. Through
its varied and numerous programs — ranging from peer counseling and
educator training to the creation of lesson plans and instructional
videos — Advocates for Youth has worked nationally and internationally
to, as their mission statement reads, “help young people make informed
and responsible decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.”
This includes providing them with information about contraceptives as
well as abstinence and brings with it a sensitivity toward all forms of
sexuality.

Comprehensive
sex education has, for years, had the backing of the scientific
community as an excellent preventive measure against teen pregnancy and
sexually transmitted diseases. Its proponents — the American Medical
Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the American
Academy of Pediatrics among them — will point to studies in
publications such as the American Journal of Public Health, the Journal
of Adolescent Health and the Journal of School Health, to back up their
claims.

Support for the
other side comes mostly from non-science sources, like Robert Rector of
the conservative Heritage Foundation. In a much quoted April 2002 diatribe
against comprehensive sex education, Rector cited a study from the
Journal of the American Medical Association to back up his claims that
abstinence-only programs work. He pointed out that the results of this
study showed that teens who take “virginity pledges” exhibited a delay
in their initiation of sexual activity. He failed to include, however,
information from that same study that also reported that virginity
pledges did not work for children under 14 or over 17; that they didn’t
work in communities where more than 30 percent of the teens took the
pledge; and that teens who broke their pledges were far less likely to
use contraception.

There is a clear
lack of scientific data to back up the efficacy of abstinence-only
programs, yet they have the full and complete support of the federal
government. Hence James Wagoner’s fears about ideology interfering with
public health.

Wagoner is not
the first one to charge the CDC with manipulating science for
ideological purposes. In 1999, the CDC posted a page on its Web site
listing sex-education “Programs That Work” from around the country that
had curricula proven to be effective. All of the cited programs were
comprehensive and included information about both abstinence and
contraception; none were abstinence-only programs. Despite repeated
outcries from proponents of abstinence-only, the list remained intact.
That is, until George W. Bush came into office.

That Web page
has vanished from the CDC’s site, as have positive statements about
condom use. Research results showing that abortions have no definitive
link to breast cancer were taken off the National Cancer Institute’s
Web site, which is part of HHS. And now with these suspiciously
motivated audits, it appears that HHS has graduated from simply hiding
scientific information that offends the religious right, to retaliating
against groups that disseminate that information.

- – – – – – – – – – – -

There are three
streams of revenue from which the federal government has chosen to
award grant money to abstinence-only education programs: the Adolescent
Family Life Act, started by President Reagan in 1981; the Welfare
Reform Act of 1996; and the newly developed Special Programs of
Regional and National Significance, which puts federal money directly
into the hands of community-based organizations. All of these
initiatives share a strictly delineated eight-point definition of
“abstinence-only” that any program must meet to receive funding.
Basically, this amounts to teens being taught that the only way to
avoid pregnancy or STDs is to abstain from any and all sexual activity
until marriage. For a program to comply with the eight-point
definition, it must teach students that “a mutually faithful monogamous
relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of
sexual activity.” Teachers in these programs are not allowed to endorse
the use of condoms or other forms of contraception. However, they are
apparently allowed to use instructional texts containing lines such as,
“Is it fair to make a baby die because of a bad decision his or her
parents made?” and “What if a girl came to school in a crop top, just
barely covering her bra, and shorts starting three inches below her
navel? What ‘game’ would she be playing?”

The
abstinence-only drive was labeled a priority for HHS almost immediately
after George W. Bush stepped into office. Starting in 2002, Congress
has granted more than $100 million each year to organizations that
sponsor abstinence-only programs; the average spending on these
programs during the Clinton administration was about $60 million a
year. Currently the only avenue through which organizations supporting
comprehensive sex education can acquire federal grants is the
Department of Adolescent Sexual Health, a division of the CDC that
offers money strictly for HIV/AIDS prevention and gives out
approximately $10 million a year divided among more than 40
organizations.

SIECUS’ No New
Money Web site urges people to contact their representatives and demand
that funding to abstinence-only programs be stopped. That call to arms
is what provided all the fodder the right wing needed to begin its
retribution.

Only a few weeks
after No New Money went live last August, 24 House Republicans, led by
Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., jotted off a letter to HHS Secretary Thompson
asking that both SIECUS and Advocates for Youth (which was listed on
the site along with more than a hundred other “supporting
organizations”) be investigated. The letter pointed out that current
law forbids the use of grant money for lobbying and explained that this
group of congressional representatives just wanted to be absolutely
sure no government dollars had gone into the construction or
maintenance of No New Money. “I requested the audit of Advocates for
Youth because I was concerned that the group was using taxpayer money
to engage in political activities, not to help people,” Pitts said in
an e-mail to Salon. “And I intend to continue keeping an eye on how
taxpayer money is spent, both here in Washington and by private
groups.”

Pitts has
eagerly taken on a crusade against what he has called the “waste of
taxpayer money.” In a statement last month on his official Web site,

he even called for an investigation into the spending practices of the
NIH, suggesting that funding should perhaps be pulled from the
venerable institution if it could not “provide a clear accounting and
explanation for how it spends taxpayer money.” He voiced his fears
about “government agencies engaged in clearly useless activities” and
illustrated this with examples from the NIH, such as research on female
sexual arousal, gays and lesbians in the Native American community, and
methods for better promotion of the morning-after pill. He insists that
he is “not criticizing the objectives of these studies” but is
“questioning the wisdom of using taxpayer resources to engage in
research that has, at best, spurious benefits to our nation.”

It isn’t
difficult to find a pattern in the type of programs that Pitts has
targeted for possible defunding: The two specific Advocates for Youth
programs that are funded by federal grant money — and that are
therefore at risk of being shut down by the findings of these audits —
are HIV prevention for young women of color and HIV prevention for gay,
lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.

Pitts happens to
be an ardent supporter of providing federal funding to faith-based
charities. (“Rather than preempt these organizations with a government
program that would never be as effective, we want to partner with
them,” he said in a September press release.) It shouldn’t be too hard
to see why groups like Advocates are feeling singled out.

The letter about
No New Money that Pitts and his colleagues sent to HHS was cited to
both Advocates for Youth and SIECUS as the impetus for all of their
audits thus far. Strangely, CDC itself seems somewhat confused about
exactly what they’ve been doing to these nonprofits, both of which were
given the disclaimer that the investigations they went through in
September were not audits. “In this case, CDC does not have official
audit authority,” explained CDC spokesperson Kathryn Harben. “So what
we’re doing is referred to as a ‘business and financial review
evaluation.'”

However, Enrique
Tessada, president of Tessada & Associates, the independent firm
contracted by the CDC to perform its most recent “business and
financial reviews,” wrote in his company’s Spring 2003 newsletter that
his staff was “auditing community-based organizations… [that] receive
grants to conduct HIV/AIDS prevention and training nationwide.”

Semantics aside,
no one can disguise the fact that, regardless of results, these audits
can have a punitive effect on nonprofits. “Each one of these rounds
costs our organization enormous amounts of time and money,” says
Wagoner. “In many ways it can grind you to a halt if you have to go
back through every book, pull every piece of paper, and so on.”

When asked why
Advocates and SIECUS were being subjected to so many reviews in such a
short period of time, Harben said she thinks “it was really more poor
planning [on the government's part] than anything else.” When asked if
every grantee organization was equally subject to CDC review, Harben
said that “the history of that is probably not consistent.” She also
indicated that the reviews “could take anywhere from a couple of days
to four or five days,” but the groups under investigation report a
lengthier time commitment. Preparation included, Advocates for Youth
says it lost almost four weeks to its last audit, and SIECUS about two
weeks.

“If they can’t
bury our heads in the sand about abstinence-only,” says Wagoner,
“they’re going to try to bury our organization in audits.”

Rep. Henry
Waxman, D-Calif., fearing an abuse of federal audit power, has emerged
as Advocates for Youth’s greatest defender in this struggle. He and a
contingent of 11 other congressional Democrats have voiced their concerns
about the motivation behind these audits in letters to Tommy Thompson.
In those letters they ask that HHS provide information about its
auditing criteria in order “to determine whether there is sound
scientific foundation for HHS’ actions.” Waxman’s first letter received
a response that was both delayed and abbreviated and left most of his
questions unanswered. His follow-up letter, sent on Aug. 14 and
requesting answers by Aug. 29, has yet to receive any response.

While
attempting to get a response out of Tommy Thompson has become a
Sisyphean task for Henry Waxman, it appears that all Joseph Pitts needs
to do is mutter something under his breath and HHS will jump into
action. On October 2nd, Pitts and some of his Republican colleagues
presented the House Energy and Commerce Committee a list of 10
scientists whose work is funded by NIH grants, including some of those
whose projects he questioned on his web site. The NIH has already made
calls to these researchers, along with over 100 others, whose names
turned up on a longer list one which apparently originated with the Traditional Values Coalition ,
an ultra-conservative organization dedicated to fighting the “evils of
abortion” and the “homosexual agenda.” So far, no action has been taken
against any of these NIH grantees and they have only been notified of
their inclusion on what Waxman has referred to as the “hit list,” but
several have contacted the California Democrat to tell him that they
now fear the loss of their funding. On Monday, Waxman picked up his pen
once again, demanding that Thompson take a stand and denounce this
“scientific McCarthyism.”

The true danger
is, as Waxman says, “that some organizations will stop offering
comprehensive education programs as a result of these audits, causing
public health to suffer.”

That is also the
biggest fear of Advocates for Youth. “This is not about the left vs.
the right,” says Deb Mauser, Advocates’ vice president. “It’s about
what works at keeping young people safe and healthy. It’s a human right
to have effective science-based strategies available to young people
who are facing an [AIDS] epidemic. Ultimately, Advocates [which
receives only a third of its total funding from government grants] will
survive. Whether young people will get the service they deserve is
questionable.”

“On one level,
we feel vindicated by the audit process,” says Wagoner, “but on
another, we can not deny the impact of this kind of tool being used on
nonprofits, and not just the intimidation on a group like ours — we’re
going to wake up in the morning, come to the office, do the work we’re
always going to do — but there’s the residual intimidation of other
organizations in this field. There are lots of them that get government
money, that don’t have diversified funds. And they may look at
Advocates and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I. And if it’s
because Advocates is raising concerns about the subverting of science
and research, if it’s because they’re raising their heads up a little
too high, well, that tells us we’d better keep ours down real low.’

“You cannot
convince me that this campaign isn’t aimed at making an example out of
us for the rest of this field,” he continues. “My only hope is that it
backfires, that those who have committed their lives to this field and
to young people or to any other group that needs good quality public
health — we will not take it lying down. We will go back to work. We
will do what’s right.”

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