The New Inquisition

THE "PRO-FAMILY" Bush administration has taken another disastrous step toward the denouement of Ronald Reagan's favorite fairy tale -- that the days when Father-Knew-Best can be dusted off and polished up for the '90s.

The latest episode, "Sullivan the hatchet man," finds the secretary of health and human services, Louis Sullivan, under the lights on the conservative Coalition for America's satellite television network -- professing shock that a federal grant had been issued to fund a nationwide survey of teen-age sexuality.


That Sullivan would be surprised is a little hard to fathom. The study, after all, had been in the pipeline for two years. The assistant secretary of health and the director of the National Institutes of Health had signed off on it. Researchers at the University of North Carolina had already received a $2.5 million grant to cover the first year of work and were busy honing survey questions when Sullivan put the brakes on the project.

But it really doesn't matter much whether colleagues kept a secret from Sullivan or whether the secretary was called to the woodshed by his boss, who is desperately trying to hang onto the allegiance of the religious right. The point is that Sullivan axed the project, saying it was "counterproductive to his commitment to . . . the message about casual sex."


It probably serves no purpose to point out that the study and Sullivan's message can easily coexist. The Bush administration, like its predecessor, cringes at the mention of the very word "sex" and views research into human sexuality as nothing more than public prurience. With the determination of the medieval inquisitors, it seeks to stamp out the heretics.

Ronald Reagan set the tone almost immediately after taking office when, in 1981, he cut funding for research at the National Institute of Mental Health dealing with, among other things, human sexuality. Five years later, with the number of AIDS infections skyrocketing, the National Academy of Sciences complained it didn't know enough about how Americans behaved sexually to adequately tackle the spread of the disease. Nonetheless, in 1989, the Bush administration took up the torch and, with the help of its congressional supporters, derailed a study of adult sexuality.

Last Thursday the president dug his heels in and threatened to veto a bill passed by the House that would allow funding of the adolescent sexual behavior study. This stuff, according to those who yearn for the comeback of twin beds on prime-time television, is supposed to be private.

I find it extraordinarily hypocritical that the men and women who work to suppress scientific research into human sexuality, on the grounds that government doesn't belong in people's bedrooms, are the very same people who also insist that Roe vs. Wade must be overturned because there is no inherent right to sexual privacy. This time, those caught in the contradiction will be the children they profess to protect.

At present, 27 percent of American girls and 33 percent of American boys are sexually active by age 15. Our teen-pregnancy rate is among the highest in the Western world, and adolescents are among the fastest-growing segments of our AIDS-infected population. The study that Sullivan stifled was designed to find out why, so that the nation could develop strategies for fighting teen pregnancy and AIDS that are a little more sophisticated than the just-say-no approach which is the GOP's all-purpose answer to every problem associated with sexuality and drug use. And which, by the way, doesn't work.

Carrying out the project, however, would have involved asking teens questions about their attitudes, family life and sexual behavior. And that inevitably would have meant using words like penis and rectum and -- for those kids whose educations have been less than physiologically accurate -- the sometimes ugly street terms. It would have meant asking explicit questions about sexual encounters as well.

No matter that parents would have had to agree to let their children participate. No matter that without accurate information and a more aggressive prevention effort more teen-agers will get AIDS, more unwanted babies will be born, more back-alley abortions performed.

One columnist for the ultra-conservative Washington Times, in lock step with the warriors of the New Inquisition, even went so far as to impugn the character of all parents who might allow their children to participate, suggesting that "we ought to get the government to survey the parents who do, and find out why."


Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat, had it right when she called the scuttling of the survey "medical McCarthyism." When politics, in the name of moral rightness, is permitted to limit the scope of scientific inquiry, it is that and more.

I remain convinced that the vast majority of American adults are far more disturbed by the sight of a pregnant 13-year-old than by a researcher trying to find out how to prevent more children from having babies. I am certain, as well, that regardless of how uncomfortable most of us would be in saying aloud some of the words that might appear in a teen sex survey, all of us would find it preferable to watching our sons and daughters slowly die of AIDS.

The Bush administration, which fancies itself an advocate of American families, is wholly out of step.