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Has Abstinence Education Failed?

  • S. Michael Craven Founding Director, Center for Christ & Culture
  • 2007 5 May
  • COMMENTS
Has Abstinence Education Failed?
This is what the mainstream media and opponents of abstinence-centered education would like you to believe in the wake of the most recent study. Headlines around the country read:

Abstinence classes have little effect, study finds - Seattle Times, 4/14
Abstinence programs fall short, study says - Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4/14
Study: Sex abstinence classes failed - Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/14
Study: Abstinence Classes Don't Stop Sex - ABC News, 4/14
Study Casts Doubt on Abstinence-Only Programs - Washington Post, 4/14

William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a leading proponent of comprehensive "safe-sex" education, said "This report should serve as the final verdict on the failure of the abstinence-only industry in this country, It shows, once again, that these programs fail miserably in actually helping young people behave more responsibly when it comes to their sexuality."

The report, which was released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. appears, on the surface, to live up to the headlines. The study sought to determine the impact of abstinence education programs. Key findings include:

Youth in the program group (abstinence classes) were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex; they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.

This sounds rather damning to abstinence education. However, here are the problems with concluding that "abstinence education has failed." First, this study only examined four programs out of more than 900 currently in place. Furthermore, of the four programs observed in the study; one was voluntary and took place after school. Also, the Mathematica study targeted children who were in abstinence programs from ages 9-11 and those children were not evaluated until four to six years later. The fact is, the targeted children were too young to absorb the abstinence message, and there was no continuation of abstinence education into the High School years when adolescents are most likely to engage in sexual activity. Lastly, the study authors themselves stated that "Some policymakers and health educators have questioned whether the Title V, Section 510 program's focus on abstinence elevates STD risks. Findings from this study suggest that this is not the case, as program group youth are no more likely to engage in unprotected sex than their control group counterparts."

The bottom line: this study hardly serves to condemn abstinence education and support a return to "comprehensive" sex education in the public schools. A recent HHS-sponsored conference in Baltimore presented evidence from more than two dozen other studies that abstinence programs are producing positive outcomes for youth. There are now 15 evaluations documenting the effectiveness of abstinence education. (Of course, the media never reports on these.) Even the authors of the Mathematica study acknowledge that "Nationally, rates of teen sexual activity have declined over the past 15 years," since the advent of abstinence education beginning in the early 1990s. Studies through the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show the rate of teen pregnancy has dropped approximately 35% from 1990 to 2002. (Studies after 2002 demonstrate the decline of teen pregnancy has accelerated.) The Journal of Adolescent and Family Health published a study that concluded 66% of the decrease in teen pregnancy was due to teens choosing abstinence. The CDC commissioned a study which estimated 53% of the drop in teen pregnancy was due to teens choosing abstinence. Clearly the message of abstinence is having a positive impact on reducing teen sexual activity.

A significant finding of the Mathematica study, which has been ignored, is "that friends support for abstinence is a significant predictor of future sexual abstinence." Adding that, "promoting support for abstinence among peer networks should be an important feature of future abstinence programs… Maintaining this support appears difficult for most youth as they move through adolescence. At the time when most abstinence education programs are completed and youth enter their adolescent years, data from the study find that support for abstinence among friends drops dramatically." In essence, the study's authors confirm the positive impact of abstinence education and argue for its expansion into the High School years. Why? Because the best defense of sexual purity is found in a socially reinforced set of values. Teach sexual purity as a desirable value and establish this value as the consensus among youth and teen sexual activity will decrease. Abstinence education is the only educational program that relies on this approach.

Let me conclude by showing you exactly what it is that comprehensive sex education advocates oppose. The following are the federal government guidelines for abstinence education under Title V, section 510 programs:

A. Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity

B. Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children

C. Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems

D. Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity

E. Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects

F. Teach that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society

G. Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances

H. Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

Comprehensive sex education advocates oppose the teaching of any "values" related to sexual activity, since they regard sex as a "values-neutral" act in which the public has no compelling interest. However, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, teen child-bearing in the US costs taxpayers $9.1 Billion per year. I think we have an interest!

So, given the values espoused under abstinence education versus the "no values" approach of "comprehensive" sex education, which approach should we employ if the stated goal of both sides is to "reduce adolescent sexual activity and its consequences?"

© 2007 by S. Michael Craven

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S. Michael Craven is the Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to the renewal and reformation of society through the renewal and reformation of the Church. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org

Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.