HHS Defends Its Advice About Condoms, Abortion

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The Department of Health and Human Services is standing behind information being disseminated on condom use and a possible link between abortion and breast cancer despite criticism by congressional Democrats.

Last week, 14 Democrats in the House of Representatives, led by California Rep. Henry Waxman, sent a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson expressing concern about two fact sheets that have been revised since President Bush took office.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is distributing new guidelines for condom use, while the National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently released a fact sheet that addresses the possible link between abortion and breast cancer. HHS oversees both agencies.

The Democrats complained that the changes were part of an "Orwellian trend" orchestrated by the Bush administration.

"Simply put, information that used to be based on science is being systematically removed from the public when it conflicts with the administration's political agenda," the letter stated.

Officials at CDC and NCI stood behind the revisions, while HHS spokesman Campbell Gardett dismissed the Democrats' suggestion that politics trumped science when it came to condom use.

"It was a scientific thing," Gardett said. "Congress asked us to look at what we knew about condom effectiveness. The National Institutes of Health came up with a report, and this was an opportunity to make that information accessible through the fact sheet."

In the letter to Thompson, Waxman claims the new fact sheet was "carefully edited to deny the public important information about the role condoms play in reducing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies."

The original fact sheet, created by the Clinton administration, stressed the importance of condoms to prevent HIV, but claimed that improper use was as much to blame as condom failure. The Democrats were particularly irked that the new guidelines did not contain tips for using condoms correctly.

The CDC updated its fact sheet on "Male Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases" on Dec. 2. Spokeswoman Karen Hunter said she was unsure about when the information was last revised, but stressed that fact sheets often change when new scientific research becomes available.

In this particular case, she said the National Institutes of Health convened a workshop in June 2000 to discuss new evidence about condoms. The fact sheet was based on that information and expanded beyond HIV to include some of the other findings.

"The fact sheet uses scientific research from the National Institutes of Health that finds that although there is a lot of scientific evidence to show that condom use can prevent HIV, there isn't that level of evidence for a lot of other sexually transmitted diseases," Hunter said. "We're just trying to present a balanced approach with the scientific evidence that's available."

Waxman's letter questioned those tactics and claimed the CDC revised the document to push an "abstinence-only" agenda to appease Bush.

Ed Vitagliano, a spokesman for the American Family Association, which advocates for an abstinence approach, doubted the Democrats' claims that politics played a role in the CDC's decision. He said condoms are not a cure-all solution to sexually transmitted diseases.

"Science shows that condoms are not 100 percent effective, and offer no protection for certain sexually transmitted diseases like the human papilloma virus and to a lesser extent chlamydia and herpes," Vitagliano said. "We fall on the side of safety, encouraging children to wait until marriage, not only for moral reasons, but also for scientific reasons."

He predicted Waxman's letter would not be the last time Democrats spoke out on the issue. In fact, 12 congressional Democrats wrote Thompson on Oct. 21 with similar concerns. He responded a month later.

Vitagliano said the back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans is nothing new.

"For eight years, these Democrats had a dominant position under the Clinton administration in determining what kind of view would be promoted to our nation's children," he said. "Now that the monopoly has been broken and is being challenged by a view they don't like, they want to bellyache about it."

Waxman was also displeased about a slight change to an NCI fact sheet about breast cancer's possible link to abortion. While the old fact sheet said women who had abortions did not possess a greater risk to develop breast cancer, the new report cited studies that showed conflicting views on the issue.

Like the CDC, an NCI spokeswoman said the agency often revises its fact sheets to reflect current scientific evidence. Another review will likely take place next year, said Peggy Vaughn, an NCI spokeswoman.

"The NCI is going to sponsor workshops to be held in early 2003," she said. "It's like a state of the science meeting. They'll focus on all the evidence and studies. There will be scientists and clinicians there and they'll try to identify the gaps in the knowledge of reproductive risk factors."

Gardett said HHS takes the Democrats' concerns seriously. He said even though the department disagrees with Waxman's characterization of the fact sheets, Thompson did plan to respond soon to their concerns.

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