Study: Teaching Abstinence Works Better Than Sex Ed
That's the question facing educators this week after a groundbreaking study found that students who take classes emphasizing abstinence are less likely to have sex than those who take classes teaching safe sex.
Although the effectiveness and virtues of sex-ed versus abstinence-only curricula have long been the subject of fierce debate in American schools, the federal study, published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, is the first of its kind to suggest that programs encouraging students to abstain from having sex altogether are successful.
Just under half of the students in the study who received sex-education classes that included information about contraceptives went on to have sex in the next two years. But only one out of three students in the study who received abstinence-only education did.
Researchers say the long-term study, which followed 662 African-American public middle school students between 2001 and 2004, is significant. John Jemmott, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who headed the study, told The Washington Post, "I think we've written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence. Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used."
Valerie Huber, the director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the study should be "a policy-changing article."
Huber said she hopes President Obama and Congress will make a "course correction" on funding for abstinence-only programs. "The study shows abstinence really is much more than a 'say no' message," she said. "There needs to be a very targeted and specific abstinence approach that is funded separately from so-called comprehensive or safe sex funding."
The study, interestingly enough, comes at a time when teen pregnancy rates are up for the first time in a decade, and many liberal and abortion rights groups say the eight years of increased funding for abstinence-only programs during the Bush administration are to blame. President Barack Obama has pledged $114 million to address teen pregnancy but cut $170 million in funding for abstinence-only education last year after scores of studies showed such programs to be ineffective. Melody Barnes, the White House's domestic policy adviser, told USA Today that the decision to make the cuts simply "reflects the research."
But not everyone thinks it's fair to blame President George W. Bush and abstinence-only education for the increase in teen pregnancy. At Newsweek, Sarah Kliff points out that abstinence-only funding rose during the Clinton years as well, when the teen pregnancy rate actually dropped by 3 percent. "Particularly between 1997 and 1998, when the funding of abstinence-only education increased tenfold, there should have been some indication of an uptick," Kliff writes. "But there wasn't."
It's not yet clear whether these latest findings will change the way sex education is taught in the country's schools.
In Catholic schools at least, little will change. Joe Kohn of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit said the latest study simply reaffirms the abstinence-only curriculum found in Catholic schools. "One thing I can say is, when it's practiced, the policy of abstinence is effective 100 percent of the time," he said. He added that the Detroit archdiocese does teach about "various contraceptives and contraceptive methods" but "does not encourage them."
But the abstinence-only program in the study was not religious, as many similar programs are, and did not vilify condom use. James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, which promotes comprehensive sex-ed programs, said that was an important distinction that separates the program in the study from those advocated during the Bush years.
"The bottom line is, we're just coming out of a $1.5 billion investment in really, really bad abstinence-only programs," Wagoner said Tuesday in a phone interview. He said the abstinence program in the study did not include "misinformation" about sex or contraceptives, for example.
What is clear is that experts and groups that had once thought abstinence-only education to be a fool's errand are taking a second look. Abstinence-only programs may be more useful than researchers originally thought. Sarah Brown, head of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told The Washington Post that the study was "game-changing."
Even Wagoner, who charges that studies by conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation advocating abstinence-only programs are akin to having "Santa Claus write something from the North Pole," found the federal study compelling. "This is a legitimate study from a legitimate researcher," he said. "So those of us who believe in legitimate research have to pay attention."
Wagoner still wants comprehensive sexual education in the country's schools, however. He notes that 23 percent of students in the study were already sexually active before the abstinence-only program even began. "Don't you want to make sure they have the education to protect themselves?" he asked.