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Unscrewing Ourselves

Sex Ed Is a Basic Human Right We Deny to Teens Every Day

"If the doctor knows you're sick, he's supposed to tell you. That's a fundamental principle of medical ethics, and countries and government programs also have obligations to provide correct and complete information."

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

Photo by juan moyano via Stocksy.

A study released earlier this week is the latest in a long line of research that shows how abstinence-only sex education doesn't work. Beyond calling attention to how "scientifically and ethically flawed" this approach is, researchers also point out that access to accurate and comprehensive sexual health education is a basic human right—one that continues to be denied to teens in the US every day.

According to the review, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, governments are obligated to provide its citizens, young and old, with the information they need to make informed decisions about their health. "Access to complete and accurate STI, HIV/AIDS, and reproductive and sexual health information has been recognized as a basic human right and essential to realizing the human right to the highest attainable standard of health," the study states. In fact, numerous international treaties insist on it.

Read more: An Abstinence-Only Advocate was Just Appointed to the Dept. of Health

For example, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasized in a 2003 general comment that in order to maximize HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, governments must "refrain from censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting health-related information, including sexual education and information." Moreover, they must "ensure children have the ability to acquire the knowledge and skills to protect themselves and others as they begin to express their sexuality."

John Santelli, a professor of population and family health and pediatrics at Columbia University and lead author on the study, says most of the world, with a few exceptions like the US, have signed on to these treaties. "A fundamental human right is the right to information, particularly around health information," he tells Broadly. "If the doctor knows you're sick, he's supposed to tell you. That's a fundamental principle of medical ethics, and countries and government programs also have obligations to provide correct and complete information."

Because the US allows states to prioritize abstinence-only-until-marriage programming, adolescents often receive limited or inaccurate information, Santelli says. "That's the reason we say pretty unequivocally in the report that these kinds of programs are unethical and don't meet the standard of medical ethics, which is based on getting people the information they need. It also doesn't help people in the sense that giving people only one choice doesn't necessarily make them make that choice. We think that's part of why these programs don't work."

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has steadily appointed to the Department of Health and Human Services—the organization tasked with improving the health of citizens—people who have been openly hostile to accurate information and access to it. Secretary Tom Price, for example, is known for past ties to the fringe medical organization Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which, as Mother Jones reported, has suggested "abortion causes breast cancer and vaccines cause autism, but HIV does not cause AIDS."

"It's a terrible thing to think that someone would get infected because we hadn't given them the information to protect themselves."

Other science deniers working in HHS include anti-abortion activist Charmaine Yoest as assistant secretary of public affairs, who once told New York Times Magazine she thought IUDs have "life-ending properties," and prominent abstinence-only advocate Valerie Huber, who was named chief of staff for the office of the assistant secretary for health.

As a result, detrimental policy changes have already started coming down the line. In July, the Trump administration quietly cut—without explanation—more than $200 million from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.

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Santelli offers this analogy to drive home the importance of giving people access to all of the health information they need. "How would you feel if you went to your own health care provider and you had a bad form of cancer where the treatment options weren't great, but your physician didn't give you all the information? For instance, if they were a big believer in chemotherapy or only interested ins surgical approaches, and they only told you about one of your treatment options. Most people would feel pretty angry, pretty horrified to find out that their doctor withheld information that's arguably important for your life and health."

"In the same way," he continues, "AIDS information through sex education is essential to young people's health. It's a terrible thing to think that someone would get infected because we hadn't given them the information to protect themselves."