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Thursday, 12 December 2019
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Reuters Article Misleads Readers Regarding PHOs

A recent Reuters article claiming pregnancy help organizations (PHOs) provide misleading and inaccurate information on web sites has some accuracy issues of its own.

The article was picked up by MedScape, a site for health care professionals run by WebMD, but readers will find several misleading claims regarding pregnancy help organizations.

The article points to a study found in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, with Katelyn Bryant-Comstock as lead author. According to the article, the reason for the study is that many state health organizations list PHOs as resources; researchers say they were looking to see if PHOs provide accurate information to teens.

The major claim of the piece, written by Madeline Kennedy, was that “teens are likely to find false information about condoms, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and other sexual health issues published on crisis pregnancy center websites, according to a new U.S. study.”

According to the Reuters articles, the study researched 254 PHOs in states where abortion laws are “more restrictive,” and “evaluated the crisis pregnancy center websites to determine whether information was given on condoms, STIs and other sexual health issues, as well as the accuracy of the information. They also analyzed whether the websites were appealing to younger audiences.”

The key finding? “The majority (of PHO sites), about 64 percent, in fact discouraged condom use by suggesting that condoms are not very effective.” To the researchers, this is inaccurate.

Reuters did not interview anyone connected to PHOs for the article. Yet, the article quoted lead researcher Bryant-Comstock extensively, who said, “Because these (PHO) websites appear in official state documents, adolescents may believe the websites have accurate sexual health information,” a clear implication that PHOs do not give accurate information.

The only other person quoted was Brian Goesling, associate director of human services research at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, NJ (not involved in the research) who did not mention PHOs at all. Instead, he gave an overall assessment of online medical information, concluding, “Teens should not consider the internet a replacement for qualified nurses and doctors.”

With yet another article bringing into question the work of PHOs, life-affirming pregnancy help centers and pregnancy help medical clinics may have to deal with the occasional question from a supporter or the media, “Does your web site contain inaccurate information? Are you misleading teens?”

The first step of course, is to make sure all medical information on a PHO web site is accurately sourced. It is also important however, to know the facts behind the Reuters article and the study it references.

Here are four facts readers need to know:

1. This was an agenda-driven study

Lead researcher Katelyn Bryant-Comstock, while a master’s candidate at The University of North Carolina, wrote a 2013 article for the Huffington Post, “Travelling America to Open Conversation about Youth Sexual Health.” 

In the article, Bryant-Comstock writes about her role with The Millennial Trains Project, where she travelled America, “talking to youth across America about their barriers to contraception and sexual health information.” She does not mention abstinence as a means of avoiding STIs, only contraception. One can only conclude that at least in this article, abstinence is not seen as a path to sexual health and is not worthy of conversation.

In addition, Reuters points to another study by Bryant-Comstock, where her research team “looked at the accuracy of information about abortion on crisis pregnancy center websites and found the sites contained false and misleading information and often target young people with offers of free testing.”

Tweet this: The study was looking for ways to attack the work of PHOs. @KirkWalden

The study was looking for ways to attack the work of PHOs. Not surprisingly, the study came out in favor of a pre-determined bias.

2. The study attacks accurate statements as “misleading teens”

The study states that a majority of PHO sites “discouraged condom use by suggesting that condoms are not very effective.” In the study, this is regarded as misleading teens, yet facts show the PHO claim is accurate.

As an example, StayTeen.Org, a site recommended by Bryant-Comstock, claims condoms are only 82% effective in “typical use.” In addition, the same site notes that teens “are often not as careful as older people” so typical use rates “may be a little worse than what you see here.”

If one concludes that a failure rate of possibly well over 18% is less than ideal, the characterization “not very effective” is accurate. Yet the study attacks this conclusion as poor information for teens.

3. The study sees differing perspectives, not differing facts, as misleading and inaccurate

The study lists only seven examples of language in PHO sites it judged to be controversial, inaccurate or misleading. 

Of the seven, three are simply samples of PHOs promoting abstinence programs. One says the goal of its program is to “promote healthy decision-making, self-esteem, community service, and a lifestyle of abstinence among teens and pre-teens.”

The study apparently sees this perspective as dangerous enough to point out, while failing to explain why an abstinence program is an impediment to sexual health.

Of the other four examples listed, one example cannot be found on the site to which it linked. Three others provide information on condom usage, such as, “Once you are in a long-term mutually monogamous and committed relationship with an uninfected partner (in marriage), you will have no reason to worry about getting an STD.”

While the researchers may disagree with the perspective that abstinence outside of marriage and monogamy in marriage is a good lifestyle decision, it would be difficult to find any medical professional who disagrees with the statement’s accuracy.

4. Researcher recommended web sites contain misleading material; encourage teens to overrule parental counsel

In the Reuters piece, Bryant-Comstock recommends Scarleteen and Stayteen as two teen-oriented sites which provide accurate information. Yet a quick look at both sites yields concerns for health professionals and parents.

For instance, Stayteen, lists a “major perk” of male condom usage as “STD Protection.” No percentages for avoiding STDs are noted, so teens are left with a clear impression that contracting an STD is impossible with this method of birth control.

In addition, teens at Scarleteen read that while casual sex has drawbacks, it can also be “a healthy, beneficial, satisfying sexual choice that a person can make and feel really good about.” Many parents and health professionals might hold a differing view.

At Stayteen, a question from a reader in the site’s “Ask” series is, “How can I convince my parents to allow me to become sexually active with my mate?” The reply begins positively, urging the reader to listen to parents because “it may give you new ways of thinking about things.” 

But in the next sentence, the tone shifts: “But it also may be the case that you have to agree to disagree on this topic for now.” Because the answer ends with this statement, a teen can infer that if there is disagreement and the teen wants to be sexually active, “agree to disagree” means the teen should pursue a sexual relationship over parental objections.

On the same page, a teen challenging his or her parents’ view that “sex before marriage is wrong” is told, “If you don’t feel like you can talk to your parents about sex, try talking to a trusted friend or other adult. Deciding whether or not you’re ready to have sex is an extremely personal decision.”

One has to ask if it is a healthy lifestyle choice for a 14-year-old to seek a “trusted friend” in the same age group for counsel regarding sexual questions. Yet this is the inference of Stayteen’s answer, one apparently endorsed by Bryant-Comstock.

PHOs need to be prepared for ongoing attacks

With recent NARAL attacks, along with questionable studies such as that by the team led by Bryant-Comstock, the best defense for PHOs is to be prepared with accurate information.

Susan Dammann, Medical Specialist for Heartbeat International, says HBI’s Extend Web Services is always on top of health trends and supporting data. 

“The Commitment of Care requires us to provide clients with ‘accurate information about pregnancy, fetal development, lifestyle issues, and related concerns,’” Dammann said. “With the expertise of our medical and legal advisers, we have the best in medically accurate, up-to-date information.”

The attacks will continue. But PHOs can prepare themselves with not only the best in information, but also a clear understanding of the agenda behind the attacks. Armed with knowledge, PHOs can best articulate to supporters and their communities a clear message of competence and of best practices.

Kirk Walden

Kirk Walden is a senior writer with Pregnancy Help News, an Advancement Specialist with Heartbeat International and author of The Wall. For banquet speaking engagements, contact Gloria Leyda at Ambassador Speakers Bureau. He can also be found at www.kirkwalden.com

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