To Abstain or Not to Abstain

The Debate Rages On Over Sex-Education Data

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 2, 2005 ( Debate has continued apace over the merits of sexual education programs that promote abstinence. As the debate rages, proponents of abstinence have had success in getting the federal government’s early nod for funding.

On June 9 the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies approved an increase of $11 million in abstinence funding for fiscal year 2006, which would take the overall sum to $115 million. A press release issued the same day by Abstinence Clearinghouse, a nonprofit educational organization based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, welcomed the decision, even though the increase fell short of the $39 million boost sought by President George Bush.

Leslee Unruh, president of Abstinence Clearinghouse, said that 10 separate reports, published in 2004 and 2005 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes for Health, and the Food and Drug Administration, show that premarital sex is just not healthy.

“Promiscuity keepers, like SIECUS and Advocates for Youth, would have people believe that teen sex is normal, safe and healthy,” explained Unruh, “but science does not support these claims.”

According to a June 15 article in the Dallas Morning News, a recent study examining the effectiveness of abstinence-only education shows positive results. A preliminary report issued by Mathematica Policy Research Incorporated suggests that youth who are assigned to abstinence-only education programs are more likely to take pledges to abstain from sex until marriage. Such adolescents also report being more aware of the negative consequences of teen-age sex.

Nevertheless, their intention to abstain from sex differed only slightly from peers who were not in abstinence programs, the study found. Still, the study has not published sufficient data so far to give a good idea of differences in rates of sexual behavior. The $7 million study, paid for by the federal government, is due to issue its final report next year.

Positive trends

Other recent studies have shown teen-age sexual activity to be on the decline. According to an Associated Press report last Dec. 10, the National Center for Health Statistics said that the percentage of girls aged 15 to 17 who had had intercourse declined from 38% in 1995 to 30% in 2002. For boys the decline was 43% to 31%.

In the 18-19 age bracket there was a slight increase in sexual activity for females, up to 69% in 2002, compared with 68% in 1995. But for males the percentage dropped from 75% in 1995 to 64% in 2002.

Additional data on the study, published the next day by the Washington Times, showed that adolescents’ most common reason for delaying sex was because it was “against [their] religion or moral values.” This was the case for 37.8% of girls and 31.4% of boys. The 2002 survey also found that 13% of girls and almost 11% of boys had pledged to remain virgins until marriage.

But critics of abstinence education have been vocal. A typical example is a Jan. 28 editorial in the Los Angeles Times. It described abstinence-centered programs as “a bunch of hooey” and accused the programs of “Giving teens false and misleading information.”

A day later the Dallas Morning News published the results of a Texas study that seemed to give support to critics of abstinence education. Research carried out by Buzz Pruitt of Texas A&M University found that students in almost all high school grades were more sexually active after abstinence education. The study did not conclude that the programs encouraged teen-agers to have sex, only that the abstinence messages did not affect the “usual” trends among adolescents growing up.

Pruitt, however, acknowledged the limitations of his study. He noted, for instance, there was no comparison group made up of teens similar in every way, but with no abstinence education.

The Dallas Morning News article also admitted that other abstinence programs have shown positive results. They cited the experience of Mike Young, from the University of Arkansas, who along with his colleagues has developed a curriculum called Sex Can Wait. The program emphasizes abstinence in youth as an integral component of a successful life. Students who can envision the long term, he believes, are less likely to gamble their futures by engaging in sex. So far the program has been documented as having at least a short-term influence on teen-age behavior.

Virginity pledgers

The Washington Post fed the debate over abstinence in an article March 19. It reported on a study headed by Peter Bearman, a professor at Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. The study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

It concluded that teen-agers who take virginity pledges are almost as likely to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease as those who never made the pledge. The findings are based on the federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

But, the article noted, some academics observed that the findings overlooked other published research, documenting that adolescents who take virginity pledges have fewer pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births.

The Washington Times reported on a contrasting study April 28. The newspaper reported that girls who participate in the Best Friends abstinence program are substantially less likely to use drugs or engage in premarital sex than peers who are not in the program.

The results were published in the Institute for Youth Development’s Adolescent and Family Health. The participants, known as Diamond Girls, were more than 100 times less likely to engage in premarital sex than high school girls who were not in the program, according to study author Robert Lerner.

Best Friends is in its 18th year and uses school-based curricula, fitness classes, mentoring, role models and community service to help girls in sixth through eighth grades make healthy choices during adolescence.

Bearman’s study has come in for criticism of its own. A paper published June 14 by the Heritage Foundation, titled “Adolescent Virginity Pledges and Risky Sexual Behaviors,” criticized the study for drawing conclusions from “minute subgroups of pledgers.” The Heritage authors, Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson, noted that one of the affirmations concluding that virginity pledgers are more likely to engage in risky behavior is based on only 21 persons out of the total sample of 14,116.

Rector and Kirk presented another reading of the data examined in the Bearman study and concluded: “Overall, adolescents who have made virginity pledges are less likely to engage in any form of sexual activity.” And, they continued: “If they do become sexually active, their array of sexual behaviors is likely to be more restricted than that of non-pledgers.”

Another Heritage Foundation paper, “Adolescent Virginity Pledges, Condom Use, and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among Young Adults,” also published June 14 by Rector and Kirk, noted that nearly 90% of parents want schools to teach youth to abstain from sex until they are married or in an adult relationship that is close to marriage.

Yet, the focus of government programs continues to be on “safe sex” — code words for promoting contraceptive use. Today, they said, the federal government spends at least $12 promoting and distributing contraception for every $1 spent encouraging abstinence.

These figures, Rector and Kirk added, understate the imbalance since they do not include most state and local spending on sex education, nearly all of which continues to have a heavy, if not exclusive, emphasis on contraception.

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