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Scientific Health Information Repressed in favor of Abstinence Only Agenda
Critics Say Government Deleted Web Site Material to Push Abstinence
WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 2002 — Information on condom use, the relation between abortion and breast cancer and ways to reduce sex among teenagers has been removed from government Web sites, prompting critics to accuse the Department of Health and Human Services of censoring medical information in order to promote a philosophy of sexual abstinence.
Over the last year, the department has quietly expunged information on how using condoms protects against AIDS, how abortion does not increase the risk of breast cancer and how to run programs proven to reduce teenage sexual activity. The posting that found no link between abortion and breast cancer was removed from the department's Web site last June, after Representative Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, wrote a letter of protest to Secretary Tommy Thompson calling the research cited by the National Cancer Institute "scientifically inaccurate and misleading to the public."
The removal of the information has set off protests from other members of Congress, mainly Democrats, and has prompted a number of liberal health advocacy groups to accuse the department of bowing to pressure from social conservatives.
The controversy began drawing attention late last month, when Representative Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat, and other members of Congress wrote to Mr. Thompson protesting the removal of the material. Bill Pierce, the department's deputy assistant secretary for media affairs, said that in all three cases the removals were made so that material could be rewritten with newer scientific information. He also said the decisions to remove material had been made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health without any urging from the department's headquarters.
But in one case — the removal of information about condoms from a C.D.C. Web site — he was contradicting a C.D.C. official. That official, Dr. Ron Valdiserri, deputy director of the center's program for H.I.V., S.T.D. and TB Prevention, said on Oct. 31, when questioned about the removal of Web site information at a news briefing on syphilis trends, that it was a joint C.D.C.-Health and Human Services decision. Asked about the contradiction, Mr. Pierce said it was a C.D.C. "decision to do it."
The department has previously been accused of subverting science to politics by purging advisory committees and choosing scientific experts with views on occupational health favorable to industry.
In an interview, Mr. Waxman said: "We're concerned that their decisions are being driven by ideology and not science, particularly those who want to stop sex education. It appears that those who want to urge abstinence-only as a policy, whether it's effective or not, don't want to suggest that other programs work, too."
One Republican congressman, Representative James C. Greenwood of Pennsylvania, joined Mr. Waxman and 10 other Democrats, in writing Secretary Thompson on July 9 to complain about the deletion of the breast cancer report. Mr. Greenwood had no comment today.
Mr. Smith, who asked that the breast cancer report be expunged, could not be reached. In his letter, which was signed by 27 of his colleagues in the House, objections to the study were termed scientific, not political. Their letter contended that the large majority of studies showed a relationship between abortion and breast cancer, and argued that the study relied on by the National Cancer Institute "contains many significant flaws."
The deletions have caused anger among some health activists. Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, had a sharp criticism of H.H.S. She said: "They are gagging scientists and doctors. They are censoring medical and scientific facts. It's ideology and not medicine. The consequences to the health and well-being of American citizens are secondary to this administration."
James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a public health organization dealing with adolescent sexual health, objected to the removal of information on programs aimed at reducing sexual activity among teenagers, which was contained on the Web site of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, saying that there "seems to be a concerted effort to censor science and research that supports contraception in favor of `abstinence-only until marriage' programs."
Terje Anderson of the National Association of People with AIDS, speaking of the deleted condom information, which was removed from the National Center for H.I.V., S.T.D. and TB Prevention Web site on July 23, 2001, said, "Something doesn't need to disappear for a year and a half to be updated."
The Web site said, in part: "Studies have shown that latex condoms are highly effective in preventing H.I.V. transmission."
Kitty Bina, a spokeswoman for the C.D.C. in Atlanta, said the revised version, which would explain that condoms did not always provide protection from other sexually transmitted diseases, had been sent to department headquarters for review.
The National Cancer Institute's removed document, "Abortion and Breast Cancer," said: "The current body of scientific evidence suggests that women who have had either induced or spontaneous abortion have the same risk as other women for developing breast cancer."
Dorie Hightower, a press officer at the National Cancer Institute, said: "We regularly review our fact sheets. We regularly update them for accuracy and scientific relevance. This was taken off the Web to review it for accuracy in July." She said that the review was to see if there had been other scientific studies. "There is supposed to be an interim statement that is going to be posted shortly," she said.
The C.D.C. Web site had also published information about intervention programs designed to discourage teenage sexual activity. Some mentioned abstinence, one mentioned condoms. Katharine Harvin, speaking for the C.D.C. in Atlanta, said the information was removed in June because some "communities and schools did not adopt packaged interventions, because some parts were disliked, or parts were liked and disliked."
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