The latest annual report of the Government's Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health was published in October 2004. The group was set up to monitor progress and advise the Government on the implementation of its sexual health strategy. It is chaired by the Labour peer Baroness Gould of Potternewton who is also the current president of the FPA (Family Planning Association). The vice-chair is Anne Weyman, the FPA's Chief Executive. Ian Jones, the Chief Executive of BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) is on the committee as 'abortion advisor' and Jan Barlow, the Chief Executive of Brook is also a member.
There are also eminent medical members of the committee, such as Dr Kevin Fenton, who have frequently stated that they consider that abstinence education has a part to play in good sex education. It is therefore disappointing to see that, along with some very helpful recommendations such as acceleration of the rolling out of the national chlamydia screening programme, the final 'groupthink' in the document contains much spin, distortion and patent lies about the role of abstinence. Early on the report states, 'there is clear evidence that abstinence-only education is ineffective. Abstinenceonly approaches do not equip young people adequately to negotiate positive relationships… (they are) at higher risk of STIs and unplanned pregnancy because they have had little or no information about contraception and safer sex'. This assertion is unreferenced and untrue. The only research (as yet unpublished) to which this paragraph inaccurately alludes, is that of Bearman et al whose data shows a very different picture from that painted in the report. This study examines the effect of pledging, not school-based abstinence education, and the pledging group were not at greater risk of STIs.
Having dismissed out-of-hand the possibly of changing primary sexual behaviours such as delaying first intercourse, the report falls back on the usual well-worn suggestions that confidentiality must be heightened so as not to frighten young people from accessing services (they do not mention the fact that 93% of girls with unplanned pregnancies have accessed services) and that there should be an expansion of availability of free condoms through the NHS. No mention is made of the fact that Douglas Kirby, one of the doyens of sex education in the USA, considers that the 'jury is still out' on the effectiveness of condoms in schools.
With regard to abortion, the only negative comment is about GPs who do not 'make their position clear on abortion and delay referral' (again unreferenced). They recommend that the NHS should carry out 90% of abortions. Perhaps this is just as well as the recent investigation of BPAS by the CMO must dent confidence in the probity of their service.
This report is as independent as one on passive smoking prepared by British American Tobacco and like the 'spring bubbling up with both fresh and bitter water' should not be mindlessly swallowed.