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ACLU Sues USAID: Are We Exporting US Taxpayer Funded Religion? February 19, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Civil Liberties, Health, Religion, Uncategorized.
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(Roger’s note: a must read on the topic of  religion and society: Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion.”  Most highly recommended.)
 
Published on Friday, February 19, 2010 by RH Reality Checkby Amie Newman
The ACLU has waited long enough.On Thursday, February 18th, they filed a lawsuit against USAID for refusing to comply with their Freedom of Information Act requests from July and September 2009, for documents related to USAID-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs abroad. The ACLU has patiently awaited documents that may help shed light on an audit completed last year suggesting USAID is dispersing money, unconstitutionally, for religiously-based HIV prevention programs. 

The report, filed by the Office of Inspector General, surveyed 9 out of the 10 faith-based organizations using USAID funds and stated clearly that USAID-awarded funds were being used for religious activities. 

For example, USAID monies fund abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for African youth that include “Biblical stories and religious messages.”  What do these look like?

One curriculum, used for HIV/AIDS prevention education, includes an optional psalm for self-reflection: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.”

The take-away concept the curriculum sums up: “God has a plan for sex and this plan will help you and protect you from harm.” 

While it is important to recognize cultural mores when crafting curricula, these messages do more harm than good. Rates of HIV and AIDS throughout Africa vary greatly but sub-Saharan Africa is more heavily affected by AIDS than anywhere else in the world. Religious messages that reinforce harmful cultural and social constructs are far from useful – if God has a plan for sex, how does this help young people protect themselves against HIV and AIDS – especially young women who more often than not are not, in developing nations, the final arbiters when it comes to protecting themselves against HIV or pregnancy. 

The ACLU, in its complaint, calls these USAID funded programs “an unconstitutional expenditure of federal tax dollars” through PEPFAR (the program President Bush created to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic – President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and notes that, by definition, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs withhold life-saving information on contraception and condoms. 

“In the face of a growing global HIV/AIDS crisis, USAID is not only violating basic constitutional principles by promoting government-funded religious activities, it is unconscionably putting young people’s health and lives at risk,” said Rose Saxe, staff attorney with the ACLU AIDS Project. 

USAID regulations related to the dispursement of funds for faith-based organizations are clear:

Organizations that receive direct financial assistance from USAID under any USAID program may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization, as part of the programs or services directly funded with direct financial assistance from USAID. If an organization conducts such activities, the activities must be offered separately, in time or location, from the programs or services funded with direct financial assistance from USAID, and participation must be voluntary for beneficiaries of the programs or services funded with such assistance.

The ACLU also notes, in its complaint against USAID, that the Office of Inspector General’s report found that the government agency “has a history of unconstitionally funding religious abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in developing countries.”

In African nations, in particular, using U.S. government funds to craft and disseminate HIV/AIDS prevention programs that include strong religious messages — and let’s be honest, we’re talking about strong fundamentalist Christian messages which reinforce strict gender roles on women and do not acknowledge the range of gender and sexual identities — seems particularly terrifying given the more recent reports of escalating violence and threats in the form of anti-gay bills, in Uganda, Rwanda and other African nations, that clearly arose from the intimate relationships between religious fundamentalists in the U.S. and these African nations. 

HIV and AIDS prevention messages must impart life-saving information to young people. If the United States is, with one hand, attempting to address the continuing spread of HIV and AIDS in developing nations by providing government funds for prevention education and on the other hand disseminating powerful religious messages that only foster harmful gender and sexuality constructs that stand in the way of healthy behaviors and prevention, we’re constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. 

U.S. taxpayers need to know how our money is being spent. The ACLU is doing its part to push for transparency:

“The United States government cannot be in the business of exporting religiously infused abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that we know fail to give young people the information they need to stay healthy,” said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “It is essential that the government provide all of the information it has about these programs so that the public has a full accounting of how taxpayer dollars are being spent.”

Amie Newman is Managing Editor of RH Reality Check.

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Inside Bush’s War on Birth Control March 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Health, Women.
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www.truthdig.com, Posted on Mar 26, 2009

By Marie Cocco

    For those whose nostalgia for the Bush administration is unfulfilled by former Vice President Dick Cheney’s snarling television appearance, there is a new window into the soul of the old regime. It is the brutally frank account of how political operatives and ideological helpmates of George W. Bush violated the law in their efforts to keep birth control away from American women—particularly teenagers at the greatest risk of an unplanned and life-altering pregnancy.

    The broad outlines of the case against Bush’s Food and Drug Administration for trying to block the approval of over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill, or Plan B, are widely known. For more than five years, the loyal Bushies at the agency blocked action by subverting science, overruling medical professionals and abandoning FDA standards that have long governed how drugs are switched from prescription-only to over-the-counter availability.

    It was done, of course, at the behest of anti-abortion zealots who consider many commonly used birth control methods as equivalent to terminating a pregnancy. When the FDA finally approved over-the-counter sales in 2006, it restricted them to women 18 and older and tried to impede the pill’s use by insisting that pharmacies keep the drug out of plain view. 

    U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman, ruling in a lawsuit brought by the drug’s sponsors and others, now has ordered the FDA to reconsider the age and availability restrictions on the morning-after pill.

    His decision is a chilling compendium of accounts by doctors and other FDA professionals who were routinely overruled by the president’s political henchmen. Sandra Kweder, a veteran of the agency’s office that dealt with new drugs, testified of being told by superiors that the Bush White House was behind decision-making on the morning-after pill, and “it was made very clear that there were a lot of constituents who would be very unhappy with … an over-the-counter Plan B and … [there was] part of the public that needed to have the message that we were taking adolescents and reproductive issues seriously.”

    But taking these issues seriously would have meant acknowledging that those most likely to benefit from quick availability of birth control after unprotected sex are, in fact, teenagers. In 2004, the court decision says, Curtis Rosebraugh of the FDA’s over-the-counter drug team not only recommended approval, but “he suggested that Plan B could decrease unwanted teen pregnancy by up to 70 percent and reduce teen abortions.”

    The court’s decision is tragically relevant. The teen birth rate has increased for the past two years—after 14 consecutive years of decline.

    Was the FDA’s ideological war on birth control a cause? No one can know. What we know is that it certainly did not help a distraught teenager. 

    Nor did the pernicious spread of federally financed abstinence-only sex education programs during the Bush era. Every sound study of these programs has shown them to have failed at preventing teen sexual activity. Some have indicated that when kids who’ve been through abstinence-only programs do begin to have sex, they are less likely to use birth control. Even Bristol Palin says that telling teens to be abstinent “is not realistic at all.”

    The Obama administration’s FDA is expected to conduct the new review of the morning-after pill that the court ordered. Anti-birth-control advocates are out, scientists are in. There’s little doubt that the drug’s safety and effectiveness—the only considerations that were supposed to be taken into account in the first place—will hold sway.

    Yet White House plans on abstinence-only education programs remain foggy. Its budget blueprint calls for financing “evidence-based” sex education that provides “medically accurate and age-appropriate information” to youths. This is the political code we’ve been forced to start using for giving teenagers the facts about pregnancy and birth control. But the president has also vowed to fund “faith-based efforts” to reduce teen pregnancy.

    It takes a leap of faith, indeed, to see how these two objectives can be reconciled without sacrificing science—and the lives of girls and women who should be able to depend on it.

    Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Texas: The state of sex (mis)education February 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Education.
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I wish this were a bad joke — the unfair caricature of Texas that you might see on a Prius’ bumper sticker — but it isn’t: a whopping 94 percent of school districts in the lone star state teach only abstinence, according to a new report. Worse yet, the review by two professors at Texas State University found that “sexuality education materials” used in the state “regularly contain factual errors and perpetuate lies and distortions about condoms and STDs.” They also found that classes promoted gender stereotypes, sexual orientation biases, shame and fear. Oh, what fun!

Disturbing as they may be, those top-line summaries of the findings are nothing compared to excerpts included in the report (PDF) from actual teaching materials. Suicide is a favorite scare-tactic: One program predicts non-virginal students’ miserable future, “You know people talk about you behind your back because you’ve had sex with so many people … Finally you get sick of it all and attempt suicide.” There are fun skits about suicide, too. In one, titled “Jumping Off the Bridge,” the moral of the story is put like so: “Giving a condom to a teen is just like saying, ‘Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off the bridge, at least wear these elbow pads — they may protect you some?'” (Got it: Handing out condoms = assisted suicide.)

Pre-marital sex presents a triple-threat, though: If you don’t kill yourself, you’ll probably die anyway — and if you don’t die, you’ll probably kill your sex partner. In response to a question about having pre-marital sex, an abstinence-only education video warns: “Well, I guess you’ll have to be prepared to die. And you’ll probably take with you your spouse and one or more of your children.” (Noted: Pre-marital sex = murder-suicide.) Boys are warned that they might kill their girlfriend by having sex: If you give her HPV, she’ll “probably end up with a radical hysterectomy, cervical cancer, and possibly death.” (So, you know, sure, go ahead and have sex, you murderer.) A curriculum for wee little sixth-graders exclaims: “WARNING! Going on this ride could change your life forever, result in poverty, heartache, disease, and even DEATH.” Another cautions in all-caps: “FOR OUR YOUNG PEOPLE TO ENGAGE IN SEX NOW IS LIKE PLAYING RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH ALL BUT ONE CHAMBER FULL!”

Suicide, death, murder? These programs gotta be pretty good at scaring teens out of having sex, right? Mmm, not exactly. Texan teens “rate well above national averages on virtually every published statistic involving sexual risk-taking behaviors,” according to the report, and the state has the third-highest teen birthrate in the country.

The Obama Mandate: End Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs February 19, 2009

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Jodi Jacobson on February 18, 2009

www.rhrealitycheck.org

Republicans these days are very, very deeply concerned about “wasteful government spending.”  House Minority Leader John Boehner complained about wasteful spending in the stimulus.  Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana stated: “More big government spending…won’t cure what ails the American economy.”  House Republican Whip Eric Kantor made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows talking “waste, waste, waste.”  And now, according to the New York Times, the National Republican Congressional Committee is launching ads blasting House Democrats on the stimulus bill, which it ridicules as “chockfull of wasteful Washington spending.”

You know what?  I agree.  Let’s get rid of that wasteful Washington spending.

And I have a concrete suggestion that will save over $200 million in cold hard cash right away, plus billions of dollars in future healthcare and related economic costs!

Sound too good to be true?  

Really, it’s not a gimmick.  It’s very simple: We just need to zero out funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the next budget cycle.

These programs don’t work to reduce sexual activity in teens, they don’t work to reduce sexually transmitted infections and they don’t work to reduce unintended pregnancies.

What is worse, they waste money both on the front end and the back end: The failure of these programs to effectively contribute to preventing unintended pregnancies and infections from the outset actually costs more money in the long run.  In 2004, for example, teen childbearing in the United States cost taxpayers at least $9.1 billion, never mind the costs of sexually transmitted infections.  So by investing in abstinence-only programs, taxpayers actually are losing billions at a rapid clip.

So it’s easy.  Eliminate the funding; we all save money now and money later.  

Given the general concern about wasteful spending, the desire to ensure the prudent investments of taxpayer funds in ways that yield positive benefits, concerns about rising health care costs, and the now-overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only programs don’t work, one might assume it will be easy to reach bipartisan agreement that abstinence-only programs, like the bridges to nowhere of the past,  should just be cut.  No bickering, no posturing…pure and simple.  Should be easy.

We will soon find out.

Given they control the White House and Congress, the ball actually is in the Democrats’ court for now.  Several observers have suggested it may be too late to remove funding for abstinence-only from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 appropriations bill, which has yet to be passed and which will likely be rolled into a giant omnibus bill to be dealt with by Congress.  (Although given their concerns, perhaps the Republicans will offer an amendment to take it out?)

But President Obama is expected to release his first federal budget request, for FY 2010, at the end of February, and the pressure is on to eliminate ab-only funding in this next fiscal cycle.  A number of leading advocacy groups, including Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS) have launched campaigns urging President Obama to do just that.  Both point to promises made by Obama during the campaign and in his inaugural speech to put an end to these programs, and to ensure evidence drives public policy.  (To take action see Advocates for Youth here, and SIECUS here).

Candidate Obama, for example, “firmly oppose(d) federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.”  He also declared support for “comprehensive sex education that is age-appropriate,” and asserted that providing “science-based sex education in schools [is] the right thing to do.”  As a Senator, he was a co-sponsor of the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would provide funding for comprehensive, medically accurate sex education, and the Prevention First Act which supports efforts to reduce unintended pregnancy and increase access to contraceptive services and information.  Moreover, during the transition, a Congressional liaison from the President-Elect’s transition team reportedly communicated directly to congressional leaders Obama’s firm opposition to continued funding for abstinence-only programs, expressing again his full support for comprehensive approaches.

Still, many advocates want Obama to make this crystal clear when he releases his budget and not, according to fears expressed by some, just give “broad guidance to Congress” as he did with the stimulus package.   They want the White House to make its priorities known.  James Wagoner, President of Advocates for Youth, notes that:

“What President Obama does on abstinence-only-until-marriage funding in his first budget will be the flagship signal for young people regarding the President’s credibility on reproductive and sexual health issues.  Obama was explicitly supportive of comprehensive sex education and science-based approaches to public policy during his campaign.  This budget must zero out abstinence-only funding.  It simply has to go.”

The majority of Americans apparently agree with Wagoner and the President on comprehensive programming.  According to a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, originally published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the majority of American adults (80.4 percent) favor a balanced approach to sex education in schools, regardless of their political leanings.  The survey gauged strong support for teaching children about both abstinence and other ways of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  And, as Wagoner points out, support for the stimulus package proposed by the President polled 20 points higher among 18 to 29 year olds then the rest of the population, indicating the very high level of political support among young adult voters for “doing the right thing.”

And here is where it gets a little complicated.

First of all, under the Bush Administration, funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs rose from $97.5 million in 2000 to $215 million in 2008.  The funding kept rising, even when Democrats were in control of Congress, and even after numerous studies, including a federally-funded evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and published in April 2007, showed that these programs were ineffective.  The Mathematica study reviewed four carefully selected abstinence-only education programs, and showed that youth enrolled in the programs were no more likely than those not in the programs to delay sexual initiation, to have fewer sexual partners, or to abstain entirely from sex.

Still, the programs retained strong support from powerful organizations, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and from a wide array of conservative evangelical groups receiving federal funds to promote abstinence-only.  As a result, some members of Congress, including Congressman David Obey, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, have been reluctant to cut such funding in the past.  Obey, for one, comes from a heavily Catholic district near Milwaukee.  Absent a clear message from the White House that the days of abstinence-only are over, some fear that members like Obey may not remove this funding from the House appropriations bill. 

And if the stimulus debacle was any indication, we can anticipate that, despite their concern for waste in government, at least a few Republican leaders will try to twist the debate on funding of abstinence-only programs until the facts lay in tatters on the green room floors of cable stations across the land.  If that happens, then other members, even Democrats, may feel pressured to act against both the evidence and that ever-invoked “will of the American people” just to mollify the loudest in the farthest right.

Because of these complicated politics, nothing is guaranteed.  To ensure the House does the right thing, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a strong supporter of evidence-based programs, needs to use her leadership role and make clear to her members from the outset that the goal is to end funding for these programs once and for all. 

Second, there is no line item for comprehensive sexual health education in the federal budget, and bills proactively supporting these programs have yet to be passed.  Related programs also desperately need additional funding.  According to Bill Smith, Vice President for Public Policy at SIECUS:

“The challenge is not just about getting rid of funding for abstinence-only programs, it’s also about fulfilling the committment to fund comprehensive sex education, increasing HIV prevention and Title X funding and about increased funding for the broader reproductive and sexual health services needed by people throughout this country.”

So to really fulfill his own mandate, Obama has to cut out money for programs that don’t work and proactively fund programs that do work, and which people urgently need, like family planning, sexual health education, HIV prevention and the rest. 

For now, however, abstinence-only remains a boondoggle and a dangerous one at that.  Originally reported by Joe Sonka on Amplify, an Advocates for Youth site, and then on RH Reality Check, one such program supported by $800,000 of your tax dollars pays a clown with dubious credentials (ok, I admit I do not know the full curriculum at clown school) to teach adolescents about “saving sex for marriage.”  Great for that first birthday party, but not so much for safer sex, unless he teaches creative use of the balloons.  And even then I am not so sure.  But clearly the content of this program was embarrassing enough that once exposed, both the clown, and Elizabeth’s New Life Center, lucky recipient of all these funds, removed information regarding the program from their respective web sites.

And while the clown example may provide fodder for late-night television comedy, other programs engage in dangerous reinforcement of attitudes and behaviors that denigrate women, blacks, hispanics and homosexuals.  For example, another program uncovered by Amplify, again in Ohio, involved a video role-play of four teens at a party, one of whom, a female, offers to drive her drunk (male) friend home.  When he rapes her, the role-play blames her for “putting herself in a risky situation” and for “having a reputation,” suggesting her claims of rape are suspect.  So this program actually blames the victim for the rape, and dismisses the guy’s behavior as a “boys will be boys” escapade.  Apparently strength of conviction by the organization running this program about the video dissipated as fast as you could say “blog post,” because once again, the video got changed right after the program was exposed.  Shows you what a little “transparency” might find.

Reinforcement of prejudicial attitudes, bias and discrimination based on race and sexual identity also are rife within these programs, many of which are subject to little if any oversight for content.  A report by Legal Momentum, for example, found that many federally funded abstinence-only programs discourage condom use, distort reproductive health information, and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.  “Many programs also perpetuate sexist and racist stereotypes about women of color,” adds the report.  

One example is ’The Choice Game’ which:

“Has a ‘Midwest School version’ that features 95 percent white students and an ‘urban school version,’ featuring ‘55% African-American actors, 24% Hispanic actors and the remaining are Caucasian.’  The urban version contains stereotypes of African-American women as sexually aggressive and as drug users, and of African-American men as likely to end up in jail.  In sharp contrast, the Midwest materials depict white students working to maintain their ‘traditional values.’”

Reports by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union reveal similar findings.  And a 2004 report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that

“over 80% of the abstinence-only curricula, used by over two-thirds of grantees [reviewed] in 2003, contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health.” 

In short, the programs reviewed by the Committee took an industrial-size eraser to the line between separation of church and state, relying on heavy does of prosyletizing and religious content to get their ineffective messages across.

Finally, a report by Douglas Kirby, a Senior Research Scientist at ETR Associates conducted for the National Campaign to Reduce Teen Pregnancy stated that:

At present, there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners. In addition, there is strong evidence from multiple randomized trials demonstrating that some abstinence programs chosen for evaluation because they were believed to be promising actually had no impact on teen sexual behavior. That is, they did not delay the initiation of sex, increase the return to abstinence or decrease the number of sexual partners. At the same time, they did not have a negative impact on the use of condoms or other contraceptives.  Studies of abstinence programs have not produced sufficient evidence to justify their widespread dissemination.

What more do we need to know to avoid putting several hundred million more dollars through a giant shredder?

In this new era of citizen participation, accountability, and respect for  evidence and human rights, it is up to us to ensure our elected officials get rid of this particular barrel of pork.

“On one hand,” says Marcela Howell, Vice President of Policy and Communications at Advocates for Youth, 

“We have a Democratic President who has pledged to get rid of this spending.  We have a majority of Democrats in Congress who have publicly stated opposition to this funding, and we have a Republican party on the hunt for wasteful spending.  It seems like an easy decision.”

It should be easy.  But to be honest, given this situation, if we can’t mobilize enough grassroots strength to ensure the President and Congress get rid of these funds, bring back the clown because the joke is on us.

Virginity pledges don’t mean much, study says December 31, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Health, Women.
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(Roger’s note: I am reminded of the quote of former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders which goes something like this: “the most unreliable condom is stronger than the vow of abstinence.”  Those moralistic religious idiots who advocate the criminalization of abortion and these ridiculous “virginity pledges” are, in effect, criminally responsible for the damage that is created by such lunacy.  Prior to Roe v. Wade millons of young women suffered and died from infections resulting from back street abortions.  According to the study cited below, young men and women who take the virginity pledge are less likely to protect themselves when they are having sex because they have been prejudiced against the effectiveness of condoms, and therefore suffer from higher rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancies.  Add these numbers to the millions of casualties that have resulted from the coming to power in the US of the un-Christian Christian evangelical right.)

Theresa Tamkins, www.cnnhealth.com, December 30, 2008  

As many as one in eight teens in the United States may take a virginity pledge at some point, vowing to wait until they’re married before having sex. But do such pledges work? Are pledge takers more likely than other teens to delay sexual activity?

A new study looked at the sexual behavior of hundreds of young people, some of whom took virginity pledges.

A new study looked at the sexual behavior of hundreds of young people, some of whom took virginity pledges.

A new study suggests that the answer is no. While teens who take virginity pledges do delay sexual activity until an average age of 21 (compared to about age 17 for the average American teen), the reason for the delay is more likely due to pledge takers’ religious background and conservative views — not the pledge itself.

According to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, pledge takers are as likely to have sex before marriage as other teens who are also religious, but don’t take the pledge. However, pledge takers are less likely than other religious or conservative teens to use condoms or birth control when they do start having sex.

In the new study, Janet Rosenbaum, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, analyzed the large chunk of data used in all the studies that have looked at virginity pledges: the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. In this survey, middle and high school students were asked about their sexual behaviors and opinions starting in 1995-96.

In the analysis, Rosenbaum compared 289 young adults who took virginity pledges in their teens with 645 young people who did not take such a pledge. The researcher was careful to only compare teens who had similar views on religion, birth control and sex in general, regardless of whether or not they took a pledge. Health.com: What should I do if the condom breaks?

Five years after the initial survey the study subjects were aged 20 to 23. Eighty-two percent of pledge takers denied (or forgot) they had ever taken such a vow. Overall pledge takers were no different from non-pledge takers in terms of their premarital sex, anal and oral sexual practices, and their probability of having a sexually transmitted disease.

Both groups lost their virginity at an average age of 21, had about three lifetime partners, and had similar rates of STDs. “And the majority were having premarital sex, over 50 percent,” says Rosenbaum. Overall, roughly 75 percent of pledgers and non-pledgers were sexually active, and about one in five was married. Health.com: Who’s most at risk for STDs?

Unmarried pledgers, however, were less likely than non-pledgers to use birth control (64 percent of pledge takers and 70 percent of non-pledge takers said they used it most of the time) or condoms (42 percent of pledge takers and 54 percent of non-pledge takers said they used them most of the time).

“There’s been some speculation about whether teenagers were substituting oral or anal sex for vaginal sex and I found that wasn’t so,” says Rosenbaum. “But I did uphold a previous finding that they are less likely to use birth control and drastically less likely in fact to use condoms — it’s a ten percentage point difference.”

Rosenbaum is concerned that abstinence-only sex education programs that promote virginity pledges may also promote a negative view of condoms and birth control. The result may be teens and young adults who are less likely than their peers to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Health.com: Sex and teens: Test your knowledge

Federal funds for abstinence only education programs have increased from $73 million in 2001 to $204 million in 2008. About 25 states apply for such funds each year to educate teens, says Rosenbaum. Sometimes programs are measured by how many teens take virginity pledges, not whether the teens stick to them, avoid sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies, says Rosenbaum.

“Studies find that kids in abstinence-only programs have negative, biased views about whether condoms work,” she says. Since such programs promote abstinence only they tend to give only the disadvantages of birth control, she says. Teens learn condoms don’t protect you completely from human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes, which is true, but they may not realize that they protect against all the “fluid-based STDs,” she says. “People end up thinking you may as well not bother using birth control or condoms.”

Virginity pledges, along with a six-hour curriculum, were first introduced in 1993 by an evangelical Christian group, and a 1995 survey suggested that 13 percent of teens had taken such a pledge (current survey data are lacking, says Rosenbaum.)

“Virginity pledgers are very different than most U.S. teens — they are obviously more conservative, they have more negative views about sexuality and birth control and so, even if they didn’t take a pledge, these would be teenagers who would be very likely to abstain anyhow,” says Rosenbaum. About 40 percent of the study subjects were born-again Christians, she notes.

The new study does not suggest that virginity pledges are harmful, says Andrew Goldstein, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, because they were not associated with an increase in STDs or unplanned pregnancies. However, they do seem to be “useless,” says Goldstein, who was not involved in the study.

Promoting the pledges gives a “false sense of security and energy could be better spent in education,” he says. “It is time to stop spending money on these useless programs and funnel it into safer-sex counseling.” Health.com: Six things your teen needs to know about sex

When it comes to advice for the parents of teens, Rosenbaum notes that just about every organization, from Focus on the Family to Planned Parenthood, offers a similar message.

“Parents should talk to their kids about their sex. It should not be single conversation, it should be a continued conversation at the moments that are teachable moments,” she says. “Parents tend to hope that schools will take care of it — they can’t, obviously.”