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Education Reporter

Nosy 'Evaluations' Could
Hurt Abstinence Programs

Kathleen Sullivan
Kathleen Sullivan
GOLF, IL - The good news is that sexual abstinence programs are working. "The abstinence message has taken on a life of its own," enthuses Project Reality Director Kathleen Sullivan. "The emphasis on developing physically and emotionally healthy young people is what parents want and, when presented with wonderful role models such as those who participated in REALITY CHECK 2000, kids are increasingly receptive to this message."

The bad news is that opponents are trying to undermine abstinence-until-marriage curricula through evaluations. "Some promoters of Planned Parenthood-style sex education are gaining access to public funds for the supposed purpose of evaluating abstinence programs," Mrs. Sullivan explains. She cites as an example the contract recently awarded to Mathematica Policy Research Inc. - worth $4 - $6 million - to evaluate a half dozen abstinence programs. "This is a significant outlay of taxpayer dollars for just six individual program evaluations involving 500 to 1500 students each," she points out.

The proposed tool for conducting this research is the "Teen Activities and Attitudes Study" questionnaire, which abstinence advocates emphasize is inconsistent with the abstinence law, Title V, Sec. 510(b)(2)(A) (H), because it probes students about personal concerns, plans, attitudes, family life, sexual activity, and contraceptive use. It includes explicit questions about the number of sexual partners students have had, whether or not and how often they use contraceptives, and whether or not they have ever been pregnant. (See Survey)

"This nosy, personal questionnaire has nothing to do with the wholesome content of the abstinence message and is irrelevant to the way abstinence education is taught," Mrs. Sullivan asserts. "Our concern is that this questionnaire is designed to undermine the abstinence message and justify comprehensive sex education."

A draft copy of a document from the Educational Guidance Institute, a leading supporter of abstinence education, explains that the survey's explicit sex questions may not be "age appropriate," "will violate the privacy of students (especially non-sexually active students)" and "will be very controversial with parents and school administrators."

The document further notes that "if proponents of abstinence education as outlined in Title V help Mathematica water down the survey questions to make them age appropriate, it is likely that the questions will be too vague to measure behavior change and show effectiveness. When the American Medical Association (AMA), et al., attack the research, Mathematica will argue that it was the 'right wing' that forced them to water down the questions to avoid political controversy."

Title V - the law 
Section 912 of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 amended Title V of the Social Security Act to include abstinence education. Sec. 510(b)(2) defines the term to mean "an educational or motivational program which: (A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity; (B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children; (C) teaches 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) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity; (E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects; (F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society; (G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and (H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity." (Emphasis added.)

The push for evaluation 
Some proponents of comprehensive sex ed appear irritated by the clear language of Title V. Susan Tolman, director of the Adolescent Sexuality Project at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, told the San Francisco Examiner (5-4-00) that federal guidelines favoring abstinence "do no one any favors." She further stated: "Abstinence-only is not their [teens'] life. What kids do, what they can handle, what they want or don't want differs enormously for every kid. What we're basically funding in this country is unevaluated curricula. What we aren't funding is comprehensive research that would provide us with a large and accurate picture of what adolescents actually experience sexually, why they do what they do and how they feel about it."

At a public health seminar in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, Rebecca Maynard, Ph.D., Director, Title V Abstinence Education Program Evaluation for Mathematica, revealed in a workshop entitled "Issues and Challenges in Teen Pregnancy Prevention Efforts" that "what we want from the abstinence outcome is better contraceptive use and lower teen pregnancy rates." An overhead displayed during the workshop claimed: "There is NO research to support or challenge abstinence-only education."

At a meeting in early March with William A. Smith, Director of Public Policy for the Sex Information Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), abstinence advocates were told that his organization and others with similar views initiated the idea of a national evaluation of abstinence programs. He predicted that Title V will be reauthorized, but indicated his opposition to the additional $20 million requested by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) for abstinence education.

"Not only should Title V receive funding, but we should be directing the dollars earmarked for evaluation toward more abstinence programs," counters Kathleen Sullivan. "The abstinence message is salable, makes sense, and they know it's working. Project Reality and others have conducted program evaluations in the past. The current demand from schools and parents, along with the positive response from teens, are proof that this message is both needed and wanted."

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