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New GAO Report Documents Failure of Oversight for Federally Funded Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

On November 16, the non-partisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a new report detailing evidence that the federal government has failed to provide effective oversight for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. The report was done at the request of several members of Congress concerned about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) spending of taxpayer money to deliver abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, all with very little oversight and few mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of the programs.

Over the past decade, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have received more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds. The vast amount of funds for these programs, which forbid discussing the benefits of condoms and contraception in preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), has been funneled to right-wing groups favored by the Bush Administration.

The GAO report uncovered a near total absence of oversight to ensure that funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not providing medically inaccurate information. In fact, according to the report, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the division of HHS responsible for the programs, admitted that no such oversight is in place. This current absence of accountability follows almost two years after a report by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) revealed that more than two thirds of the most popular curricula used in federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs contained serious medical inaccuracies, including misinformation about HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases, and the effectiveness of condoms.1 To date, HHS has made no changes to the reviewed programs and, despite the evidence, denies that any problems with the curricula exist.

“It is increasingly clear that the Administration for Children and Families’ strategy is to bury its head in the sand and simply throw money at organizations that favor the social issue agenda of the Bush Administration,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS. “One has to question if ACF is acting more like a rich, cash-drunk uncle rather than in its proper role as a protector of our nation’s health,” Smith continued.

The report also found that the only assistance provided by ACF to help educate grantees about medical accuracy was through a subcontract to the Texas-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health.  The Medical Institute’s own grasp on what constitutes medical accuracy is questionable as some of the materials created by the organization were found in the federally funded review to contain medical inaccuracies.  Representative Waxman’s report found that Sexual Health Today , a slide show created by the Medical Institute, contained medically inaccurate information about condom use, rates of STDs, and the health impact of STDs. Waxman’s report found other errors in the slide show such as the assertion that touching another person’s genitals “can result in pregnancy.”2  While the fact that ACF hired somebody to help grantees with medical accuracy seems to suggest that the agency knew there was a problem, ACF did not reach out to any respected mainstream public health organization or even within HHS to a respected agency like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Instead it turned to yet another organization that receives abstinence-only-until-marriage money, has been found to provide medically inaccurate information in its own curriculum, and has been closely associated with the Bush Administration since Bush’s days as Texas’ governor. 

The GAO also reported on ACF’s total lack of appropriate and customary measurements to determine if funded programs are actually working. ACF took over the administration of these programs in 2001 and promptly gutted evidence-based measures such as determining whether programs reduced teen pregnancy rates. In their place, ACF now only requires grantees to provide non-health based measures, such as how many young people were in the program and the number of hours the program operated.

“This GAO report shows that the emperor has no clothes: ACF may be within our Department of Health and Human Services but it is not about public health,” said Smith. “With more than a billion dollars having been frivolously spent and without any evidence that these programs are effective, it is time for the new U.S. Congress to step in and either institute the oversight that the Bush Administration refuses to provide or suspend the program’s funding until accountability is brought to the program’s administration.”

To view the full GAO report, please visit:


  1. The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence Education Programs, Prepared for Representative Henry Waxman (Washington DC: Committee on Government Reform–Minority Staff, Special Investigations Division, December 2004).
  2. Ibid.