Programs like True Love Waits, which challenge young people to abstain from sexual activity until marriage, dramatically reduce the rate of out-of-wedlock births, according to a new study released by the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Young women who take a virginity pledge are at least 40 percent less likely to have a child out of wedlock and 12 times more likely to be virgins when they marry, compared to young women who do not make such a pledge, the study revealed.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health tracked young people from junior high to young adulthood, beginning in 1994, a year after LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention launched its True Love Waits emphasis. The study tracked the effects of virginity pledges on teens'actual sexual behavior.

The study concluded that public abstinence pledges made by teenagers still had an effect six years later. Pledgers are less likely to initiate sex and more likely to marry.

Significant Social Implications

The study's findings about out-of-wedlock births have very significant social implications, said Kirk Johnson, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

"Some 1.35 million children are born out of wedlock annually, representing roughly one-third of all births in the United States," he said. "Children raised by single parents are seven times more likely to live in poverty than are children raised in intact homes, and they are much more likely to be dependent on welfare programs and to suffer from a wide range of other social maladies."

When the findings were adjusted for differences in race, income, family structure, religiosity and other background conditions, the rate of out-of-wedlock births dropped 50 percent -- 29 percent of young women who had not made an abstinence pledge had a child out of wedlock, contrasted with only about 14 percent of young women who had made a pledge.

"Young people who make deliberate public pledges to remain virgins are likely to substantially delay the initiation of sexual activity, have fewer sexual partners and are more likely to marry," Johnson said. "These behaviors, in turn, are likely to lead to lower rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing. The current findings strongly suggest that abstinence education programs that clearly encourage young people to delay sexual activity can, potentially, have a large positive effect on youth behaviors and life outcomes."

The study's findings reinforce the conclusions of nine other research projects on the effectiveness of teenage abstinence pledges.
Syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher argues that secular critics of abstinence programs point to findings that indicate most pledgers do eventually have premarital sex and have only slightly lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases. But they minimize the social good accomplished by the programs and ignore the emotional costs of premarital teen sex.

Meeting Both Emotional and Social Needs

"True abstinence education programs are uniquely suited to meeting both the emotional and the physical needs of America's youth, in sharp contrast to the 'safe sex' or 'comprehensive sex education' curricula that often permeate America's public school classrooms," Johnson said. "In general, these sex-ed curricula fail to provide a message to delay sexual activity, fail to deal adequately with the long-term emotional and moral aspects of sexuality, and fail to explain that sexual activity should be linked to love, commitment and intimacy."

An earlier set of findings from the project, released in 2001, concluded that teens who make abstinence pledges delay having sex a year and a half longer on average than those who do not pledge abstinence.

That study noted the delay effect is "substantial and almost impossible to erase." The pledge works, the study suggested, because it creates an "identity movement" or "moral community" that provides peer support for the teen.

That study also confirmed research that showed adults, especially parents, play a vital role in helping even older teens delay sexual activity. Delayed one-on-one dating and clearly expressed disapproval of premarital sex from adults greatly empowered teens to sustain their sexually purity pledges. Because True Love Waits campaigns typically are conducted in a church setting, teenagers are supported in their pledges by parents as well as a community of caring adults and peers.

Programs like True Love Waits, the study concludes, teach that human sexual relationships are mainly emotional and moral -- not merely physical -- in nature and that abstaining from premarital sex as a teenager is a critical step toward having a healthy, loving relationship in marriage as an adult.

Frequently asked questions about True Love Waits: http://www.lifeway.com/.

The Heritage Foundation (http://www.heritage.org) is a research institute that uses social science research to formulate and promote conservative public policies.

© 2004 Baptist Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.