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Satcher Conference on Common Ground Finds Little Footing

On Monday, May 24, former Surgeon General David Satcher took the lead in gathering more than 350 people in Washington, D.C. for a day-long conference billed as an opportunity to build common ground on sexuality and sexual health. Satcher, now based at the Morehouse School of Medicine where he heads up The Sexual Health Program of the National Center for Primary Care, hopes to build on the groundbreaking work he started with the 2001 release of The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior.

The conference, "Science and Belief – Seeking Common Ground," was comprised of many panel presentations that seemed to serve to magnify the differences rather than identify bridges. For example, one panel had two different scientists presenting vastly different data on the "ABC" (abstain, be faithful, use a condom) approach used with great success in Uganda.

The issue of "ABC" and its applicability dominated much of the day’s discussion. Dr. Satcher, in his opening address, seemed to endorse the ABC approach for domestic prevention programs, albeit with a few caveats. For example, he stressed the need for programs to address the issue of hopelessness, suggesting that "ABC+Hope" is a preferable paradigm to follow domestically.

Yet, the problem with importing the "ABC" approach is that no one can agree on what happened in Uganda. The Bush Administration argues that it was predominantly the result of increased abstinence, while the data and more objective opinions suggest something much more complex. The Conference failed to address this issue in depth and one question from a member of the audience who suggested that we look instead to Europe where more comprehensive approaches are the norm, seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Perhaps the oddest presentation at the conference was given by Paddy Jim Baggot of the Saint Gerard Fertility Care Center at the Santa Teresita Medical Center in California. Baggot’s presentation was a combination of bad science and ideology in which he failed to offer even a slim guise of objectivity. A board certified OB/GYN, Baggot spent his allotted time decrying the decline of morality and its connection to contraceptive availability or what he termed "population control." As a solution to this decline, Baggot quoted various encyclicals from the Roman Catholic Church and discussed the importance of natural family planning, known in Catholicism and more broadly as the "rhythm method."

Baggot’s presentation brought vocal criticism from those assembled and many attendees from right wing organizations attempted to distance themselves from his comments. However, Baggot has served as a member of the Medical Council of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, the largest provider of abstinence-only-until-marriage materials and programs.

At the end of the event, even Dr. Satcher conceded in his concluding remarks that "It was probably unrealistic to think that at a first meeting like this, we would be able to find common ground." The conference also found little success in attracting press to cover the event. Of the main wire services, only the Associated Press put out a single paragraph. Cox News Service did a longer piece highlighting the "fractious" nature of the conference.

"What was tried here today is not new-in fact, common ground building efforts saw their heyday in the 90’s," commented Bill Smith, SIECUS’ director of public policy, who once worked on common ground building projects for teen pregnancy prevention. "What is different is the entire landscape of sexuality and prevention with the ascendance of the Bush Administration. In fact, one could argue that what common ground has gotten us as advocates is over one billion dollars domestically and internationally for unproven abstinence-only-until-marriage efforts," continued Smith. "The real common ground is the sense that our young people need help and we are failing them. Public policies must catch up to this reality."

While the conference itself left many participants frustrated and annoyed, the importance of Dr. Satcher’s initial Call to Action cannot be overstated. The landmark publication has moved and continues to move a national dialogue about sexual health in the United States forward. SIECUS remains committed to the principles of the Call to Action and will work toward their implementation.

Read the Call to Action.