Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Reading Secretary Leavitt's mail

A reader sent along the following letter that The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) sent DHHS Secretary Leavitt regarding the Department's website. The letter is long, so if you don't have the patience (or the stomach) to read it, here is the short version: inaccurate, misleading, incomplete, unhelpful and with subtle anti-gay and anti-choice framing aimed at parents to use in educating their children. Paid for by the US taxpayer.
March 31, 2005
Secretary Michael O. Leavitt
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201

Dear Secretary Leavitt,

We the undersigned are writing to express our deep concern with the Department of Health and Human Services‚ recently launched website: While all of us agree that parents should ideally be the primary sexuality educators of their children, it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that parents receive the most accurate information and resources they need to achieve this difficult task. Unfortunately, fails to meet these goals and instead, relies on fear to motivate and contains many errors and biases that undermine its intent of encouraging parent-child communication around sex and sexuality. presents biased and inaccurate information as fact and does not address the needs of many youth, including sexually active youth, youth who have been or are being sexually abused, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.

Specifically, the website dictates values to parents rather then helping them to incorporate their own values into discussions regarding sex and sexuality. For example, while discussing what parents can do if their child has become sexually active, parents are told how to convince their teens to stop having sex by telling their children that they are "worth it." No resources or suggestions are given if a parent does not convince their teen to stop being sexually active, implying that these youth are not "worth it."

Additionally, the website contains inaccurate information regarding the effectiveness of condoms and the ability of youth to properly use condoms and other forms of contraception. While states that it is easier to prevent a teen's first sexual experience rather then to increase contraceptive use, research has shown that programs that include both messages actually effectively do both. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, condom usage among sexually active teens has gone up almost twenty percent in the past two decades (from 46 percent to 63 percent). Messages to teens should encourage them to delay sexual activity and, when sexually active, to use condoms and other forms of contraception. also contains a distressing lack of information for parents of sexually abused and assaulted youth. While it is commendable that the website includes some of the signs of sexual abuse in youth, it lists only one resource for parents and this resource does not focus specifically on sexual abuse, but rather on all forms of child abuse.

The website also fails to address the unique needs of parents with LGBTQ children. Whenever discusses LGBTQ youth, it uses outdated and alienating language and ideas. For example, in the section of the website where sexual orientation is mentioned, it repeatedly uses the terms "alternative lifestyle" and "homosexuality." This language assumes that being lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) is a choice and also reduces LGB people to the mere equivalent of their sexual activity. The website also fails to include any information about transgender youth. Additionally, referrals for further information for LGBTQ youth and their parents is conspicuously absent.

The website also contains language that is clearly anti-choice in nature. For example, states that "abortion complications" are one of the major reasons for infertility. In reality, less than 1 percent of woman receiving an abortion have a major complication and there is no evidence of infertility issues resulting from abortion among woman who have had the overwhelming majority of abortions. Further, the website omits the more likely causes of infertility, such as blocked fallopian tubes. In other examples:
  • In its definition of menstruation, the website states that "If the egg is fertilized, this lining will nourish and protect the unborn child." "Unborn child" is not medically correct language; embryo or fetus would be accurate.
  • The website defines abortion as "ending a pregnancy before a live birth occurs by removing the fetus or unborn baby from the uterus." Again, there is an agenda inherent in the language used.
  • In its definition of uterus, the glossary section states "It is also called a womb. Womb has a religious, not medical, context.
Also troubling is that only one non-governmental organization is credited as having worked with HHS to create the National Physicians Center for Family Resources (NPC). The NPC represents views that are far outside the values of mainstream Americans and the public health community. NPC has ties to right wing religious organizations, like the California Family Council, Alabama Family Alliance, and Focus on the Family and boasts of alliances with fringe medical associations and doctors such as the Alabama Physician Resource Council, the Physicians Consortium and Dr. Laura Schlesinger. Additionally, the NPC has repeatedly asserted a specious connection between abortion and increased breast cancer and has advocated for non science based interventions like "abstinence only until marriage" programs. By creating the website with only one organization--and one organization that has questionable credentials in this area--HHS has dangerously narrowed the information included on and in turn, shortchanged the very parents the site is meant to serve.

We respectfully request that the website be immediately taken down and subject to a formal review of its content and techniques for communication and behavioral learning. This review should be done by a broadly accepted panel of experts in parent/child communication with well established credentials in this area.

We look forward to a response and to working with you further on creating a website that truly meets the needs of all parents and is based on the best available research.


The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)