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Education Reporter

New Sex Ed Study 'Game-Changing'
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A new study provides compelling evidence that abstinence-only sex education can be more effective than so-called "comprehensive sex ed." In a report published in the February 2010 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, researchers found that only about a third of the sixth- and seventh-graders who completed an abstinence-focused program began having sex within two years.

In contrast, 52% of the students who participated in a safe-sex course had intercourse, a slightly higher proportion than kids who received no sex ed at all. A fourth group received "comprehensive" instruction that taught both abstinence and contraceptive use, with 42% of those students reporting coitus in the following two years. The researchers also reported that the abstinence program had no negative effects on condom use, thereby countering a primary criticism of abstinence-focused programs.

"I think we've written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence," said John B. Jemmott III, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the study. He and his team conducted their federally funded research between 2001 and 2004 with 662 African-American students from four public middle schools in the Northeast.

The study's conclusions come in the midst of a contentious national policy debate about the best way to reduce teenage pregnancy and STD rates, both of which have begun to climb again after a decade of decline. Last year, the Obama administration eliminated more than $170 million for abstinence programs in favor of "evidence-based" contraceptive-focused programs.

"This new study is game-changing," said Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned pregnancy. "For the first time, there is strong evidence that an abstinence-only intervention can help very young teens delay sex."

Actually, at least eleven other studies have found abstinence programs to effectively reduce sexual activity, according to Robert Rector, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation. But the Jemmott study is the first to compare the abstinence approach to several alternatives using a random assignment of study subjects, a methodology considered to be the gold standard in research. "This takes away the main pillar of opposition to abstinence education," said Rector. "I've always known that abstinence programs have gotten a bad rap."

Rector also observed that media and policymakers have ignored important benefits of abstinence beyond pregnancy and STD prevention. He said research has shown that abstinent teens are happier and are half as likely to drop out of high school as their sexually active peers, and that statistic doesn't even include girls who are forced to leave school to care for their infants. Teens who are abstinent until age 18 are also twice as likely to attend and graduate from college, compared to sexually active peers from the same socio-economic background.

Elayne Bennett, founder of the Best Friends program, is delighted that the Jemmott research confirms her experience in working with primarily African-American girls. Her program has successfully helped girls abstain from sex, drugs and alcohol during high school for 20 years, and has recently added Best Men, an offshoot program for boys. Bennett has found that kids desperately want someone to tell them it is okay to postpone sex, to help counter the incessant cultural pressures they are bombarded with.

Obama administration officials said abstinence programs like the one in the Jemmott study could be eligible for federal funding in the future. "No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants if there's promise that it achieves the goal of teen pregnancy prevention," said Nicholas Papas, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Which studies will be considered adequate "evidence" is not so clear-cut. At least two researchers have taken issue with the conclusions of a recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) review of 83 U.S. sex education studies. Irene Ericksen and Danielle Ruedt said the CDC panel's judgment that comprehensive sex ed programs are "generally effective" is unsupported by the evidence, citing various methodological problems. The pair also charged the CDC panel with "fail[ing] to acknowledge the evidence" for the efficacy of abstinence-education programs. (National Review, 2-1-10; 2-5-10; The Washington Post, 2-2-10)

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