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Alarming expose by Aaron Atwood, assistant editor for CitizenLink. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) signed on as a primary sponsor for a conference that promotes promiscuity, unprotected sex and drug use.

by Aaron Atwood

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) signed on as a primary sponsor of the 1st National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV and Hepatitis: Science and Response-- a conference with so-called "harm reduction" components.

HHS is providing $3,000 in financial scholarships for rural department employees to attend the conference this weekend. It's also listed on the front of the brochure as a sponsor. But HHS is denying that it ever sponsored the conference.

Many state departments of health are also sponsoring the event.

Oklahoma agreed to participate, then withdrew after learning the details.

Officials at the Oklahoma Department of Health said they felt duped into attending the conference. They said they were unaware of the sexual nature of some of the sessions and pulled out, noting that sponsorship by HHS had them thinking the whole conference was about curbing meth use.

In a letter expressing disappointment and outrage, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., called on HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt to explain the support for a conference with sessions like "Without Condoms: Harm Reduction, Unprotected Sex, Gay Men and Barebacking;" "Tweaking Tips
for Party Boys" and "Barebacking: A Harm Reduction Approach," all references to unprotected gay sex. He called for Leavitt to file his explanation by Aug. 16. Souder's office had not received any response by midday on Aug. 17.

In response, Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Sam Brownback, R-Kan., James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sent a scathing letter to Leavitt regarding the Department’s support for the conference and asking for an assessment of costs associated with sponsorship.

A spokeswoman at HHS told CitizenLink told that it being listed as a sponsor was a mistake on the part of the organizers. HHS was not and is not a sponsor.

Luciano Colonna, executive director of the Harm Reduction Project and the conference organizer, said that's simply false.

"They were a sponsor and still are sponsors. If they weren't sponsors, why didn't they just say that nationally when attacked by Souder last week?" he asked. "It has become an odd and strange political fiasco. Frankly, they can have their money back. We'll get by just fine without
the money."

Souder expressed his emotions clearly in the letter dated Aug. 12.

"I find this all to be deeply offensive," he wrote as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources. "I am enormously frustrated with your Department for dithering on the meth issue while the rest of America fights an epidemic that is viciously
tearing apart families and communities throughout the country."

Colonna said the two-day conference said conferees range from members of the judiciary and law enforcement to gay advocacy and drug legalization proponents.

"Because it is affecting so many different people we needed to bring many people on board," he told CitizenLink. "We have to give them a forum. One of the things that people take issue with is our message that not everybody is going to respond to treatment and stop doing drugs. We take a more realistic approach."

Shepherd Smith, president of the Institute for Youth Development said that presents a number of problems.

"I think the real tragedy of harm reduction is it's teaching people to reach such a low threshold rather than look for what is the optimal goal for each individual," he said. "It is taking sub-optimal and making it optimal."

Smith said it reflects a lack of belief and a lack of understanding.

"There is lack of belief that people can achieve the optimal situation for themselves in life, that people are capable of overcoming great adversity. People can reject behavior patterns that have been destructive to them," he said. "There is a lack of understanding that people want for themselves, more often, a better condition, and that they are willing to work for it. People aren't helpless."

He said a look down the road shows the problems with the approach.

"The end of this legitimizes things like prostitution," he said. "This other idea that you can't say anything negative because you hurt the self esteem of an individual who is using goes beyond any sense of correcting the problem."

Peter Brandt, senior director of government and public policy at Focus on the Family Action, called the entire conference "very alarming."

"The fact that HHS cannot even be straight about its involvement is even more distressing," he said.

"We were opposed to the nomination of Leavitt as the secretary of HHS to begin with," said Brandt. "His record as the governor of Utah was a great disappointment in the area of sexual health. Now comes this conference.

"Whether Leavitt knew about this conference or not, this conference should represent a strike against Leavitt. If he knew about it -- and he should have, given that it is being held in his home state -- then it is an indication of his lack of judgment and a severe ideological flaw in terms of sound public health. If he did not know about it, it is a sign that he is mismanaging HHS."

TAKE ACTION: Let Secretary Leavitt respectfully know that you oppose HHS sponsoring any event that condones drug use and dangerous sexual practices. You can reach him through the CitizenLink Action Center.

"Copyright (c) 2005, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. This article appeared in CitizenLink Daily Update published (date), a policy and culture information service of Focus on the Family. For more information, see"
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