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Education Reporter

Sound Research Defends Abstinence Education

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The ACLU announced in September 2006 that it would take "nationwide action" against abstinence education, especially in 18 states. 43 states participate in the State Abstinence Education Grant program, which gives them federal funds for the programs. Ohio, not one of the ACLU's 18, just became the most recent state to move away from abstinence programs. Saying he doesn't believe abstinence education really works, first-term governor Ted Strickland dropped partially matching state funds from his version of the state budget.

Opponents of abstinence programs gained a boost from a highly publicized study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. The study followed students in four communities who received abstinence education starting in 1999. In 2005 and 2006, Mathematica found no difference in sexual activity between program participants and their control group peers, who had participated in whatever other health programs their school districts offered. The participants were an average age of 16- when Mathematica followed up with them in 2005. About half of the students in both groups had had sex. The study also found no difference between the two groups with regard to when the students first had sex, their number of sexual partners by 2005, or their likelihood of using contraception.

Libby Macke, director of the abstinence education group Project Reality, pointed out the study's major methodological flaw in a letter to the Chicago Tribune (4-27-07). Since the control group and intervention group students all attended the same schools, this study cannot tell us how the different types of sex education affected students' opinions and behavior, she says. Famously capable of sharing and exchanging information, teenagers simply cannot fit neatly into control and intervention groups under these circumstances.

"More than 7 million tax dollars were spent to fund this study," Macke reminds us. "Surely the researchers could have found another means of finding a control or comparison group by finding a demographically similar school or by comparing results to national youth behavior studies."

Macke also drew attention to the fact that more than 30 studies have shown positive outcomes from abstinence education. In inner-city Washington D.C., for example, girls in abstinence programs had seven times the abstinence rate of their peers.

What else have such studies shown? According to data from the 2004 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, 70% of students who had made an abstinence pledge were still virgins at age 18, compared to only 37% of 18-year-olds who had never made a pledge. Those who did have sex before marriage had fewer sexual partners than non-pledgers; and most of them had sex only with their future spouse. Those who had pledged abstinence were 12 times more likely to be virgins on their wedding night.

Critics of abstinence education assert that teenagers will have sex no matter what they learn in school, and that abstinence education only makes them more likely to have sex without contraception. The 2004 Longitudinal Study told a different story. 17% of pledgers and 28% of non-pledgers reported having unprotected sex. Those who pledged abstinence, if they did have premarital sex, were no less likely to use contraception than non-pledgers who had premarital sex.

Specific abstinence programs have proven effective in numerous studies. Two abstinence programs, Teen Aid and Sex Respect, reduced initiation of sex among at-risk high school students in Utah by over one-third. The same study showed that a non-abstinence-based program in the same area, Values and Choices, had no effect on the sexual behavior of participants.

Another study evaluated Postponing Sexual Involvement, a program provided to low-income 8th-graders in Atlanta. This program reduced the initiation of sex during 8th grade by 60% for boys and 95% for girls, as compared to a similar population of Atlanta 8th-graders who did not participate.

Teenagers are an independent-minded group. The federal government's $1.4 billion ad campaign against drug use begun in 1998, for example, appeared to reduce teen drug use not at all. One study even indicated that teens who saw the commercials were more likely to experiment with drugs than those who never saw them.

What do teenagers themselves say about abstinence education? One recent national poll found that 93% of teens want to hear a strong message of abstinence. Eight out of ten say that teens should not be sexually active, according to a 2004 report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. The same report told another sad story: 63% of teenagers who have had sex say they wish they had waited longer.

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