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Facing South

NC DHHS appointee behind discredited pro-abstinence, anti-gay website (UPDATE)

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Only two days after her appointment, the woman picked to lead North Carolina's early education programs has found herself caught up in a storm of controvery.

First came the revelation that Dianna Lightfoot, chosen by new Department of Health and Human Services director Aldona Wos to head the state's pre-K programs, isn't a big fan of pre-K programs.

Then came the news that Lightfoot's Twitter feed included a number of controversial statements, like one calling Hillary Clinton one of Obama's "butch bunch." The Twitter account was soon deleted, but Lightfoot's Facebook account remains, including posts calling pro-gay protestors "anti-freedom-of-speech bigots," the "Chicago Mob," and "bullies."

As Travis Fain, reporter for the Greensboro News & Record, wrote: "Oh, Dianna Lightfoot, welcome to state government."

But it was hardly the first time Lightfoot had been the center of a high-profile political controversy. In 2005, Lightfoot was thrust into the public spotlight when the group she led -- the religious conservative National Physicians Center for Family Resources, where Lightfoot is still listed as president -- was contracted to run a government website about teen sexuality, www.4parents.gov.

Almost as soon as it appeared, www.4parents.gov was skewered by public health experts and more than 200 groups nationally for providing dubious information about birth control, having an anti-gay bias, and amounting to what one observer described as "a thinly veiled brief for pro-life moral values and abstinence education."

In July 2005, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) called for the site to be taken down just months after its launch due to its "innacurate and misleading information," stating:

The content appears to have been guided by ideology, not a commitment to providing parents and teens reliable information about sex. A federally funded website should present the facts as they are, not as you might wish them to be. It is wrong -- and ultimately self-defeating -- to sacrifice scientific accuracy in an effort to frighten teens and their parents.

Among the questionable claims put forth on www.4parents.gov under the National Physician Center's direction:

* In promoting abstinence, the website incorrectly claimed that condoms are "50% or less" effective stopping sexually transmitted diseases, and falsely stated that there is “[n]o evidence that condom use reduces risk of HPV [human papillomavirus] infection," despite research showing it does.

* Repeated the claim, common among abortion foes, that abortion heightens the risk of breast cancer, despite no evidence to support the assertion.

* Cited as fact a story from Seventeen magazine that "[o]ral sex has taken the place of the ‘spin the bottle’ game with children as young as 11 and 12 years old," despite no evidence to support the claim.

* The website promoted an anti-gay bias, warning that "your child is certain to hear about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lifestyles at some point." The site also claimed that "[s]ome teens who question their gender or relationships are at increased risk for depression, suicide or other problems" -- failing to note that such "problems" are often due to ostracism or harassment for being gay.

* In discussing "unhealthy behaviors" among teens, one expert noted that while "alcohol and tobacco are clearly the most serious health risks to which teenagers are exposed ... they receive less attention than ... tattoos and body piercings."

The website is no longer operating. It's unclear why Lightfoot and the National Physicians Center were contracted by federal agencies to run the website in the first place. According to Rep. Waxman's office, the Center was given $25,000 for the site as "part of a new national public education campaign" to help parents help their teenagers make "the healthiest choices."

But as the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out at the time, there were many natural partners, led by long-time experts in the field, to run such a site: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, or even established private groups like the Society for Adolescent Medicine.

The reason they were bypassed in favor of the less credible and more ideological National Physicians Center was outlined by Lightfoot herself. While many of those groups have produced research demonstrating the shortfalls of single-minded approach on abstinence-only sex ed, Lightfoot and the Center were on board with the Bush administration's aggressive push to fund such programs.

As Lightfoot said amidst the controversy:

The website was intended to emphasize the healthiest lifestyle choice, and [President Bush] says that he believes abstinence is the healthiest choice for adolescents.

The derogatory statements about gay, lesbian and transgender people found on Lightfoot's Facebook page and the www.4parents.gov website weren't an aberration, either. In 2005, Dr. John Whiffen -- chairman of the Center's board -- compared being a gay male as a health hazard on par with smoking tobacco. As Whiffen stated:

It's fairly well-accepted that smoking is not a good idea. It takes seven years off your life. It appears that male homosexuality takes more than that off your life. Naturally you should warn them about that.

UPDATE: Dianna Lightfoot announced on Thursday, Feb. 7 she has resigned. Her statement:

Dianna Lightfoot was scheduled to start at HHS next week as Director of Child Development and Early Education. Ms. Lightfoot informed Secretary Wos this morning that she does not wish to be a distraction to the department and will pursue other opportunities. Secretary Wos accepted this decision.

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