WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 9, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Government support for sexual education programs that promote abstinence continues to divide opinions. The U.S. House of Representatives voted for a 49% increase in funding for abstinence education, the Washington Times reported Monday. A Senate vote is not likely until after the November elections.
If eventually approved, the increase would give $105 million in federal funds for 2005 to the abstinence program, up from $70.5 million this year.
The federal funds are “making an impact,” said Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse. She told the Washington Times, however, that abstinence education still receives only $1 for every $12 given to programs that stress condom use.
Promoting abstinence has plenty of opponents. On Sept. 28 the organization Advocates for Youth released a pair of reports that, according to the press release, “raise new questions about the effectiveness of the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach to sex education endorsed by the federal government.”
Research into abstinence programs in 10 states by Advocates for Youth reportedly shows that in the long-term there is “no long-term success in delaying sexual initiation or reducing sexual risk-taking behaviors.”
But the positive effects of delaying sexual activity is strongly defended in studies published by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. On Sept. 21 the organization published a report entitled “Teens Who Make Virginity Pledges Have Substantially Improved Life Outcomes.”
The report provides statistical evidence demonstrating that teen-agers who publicly pledge to refrain from sexual activity are less likely to experience teen pregnancy. And they will likely have fewer sexual partners.
The study cited data from the government-funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, showing that the behavior of adolescents who have made a virginity pledge is significantly different from that of peers who have not made a pledge. Teen-age girls who have taken a virginity pledge are one-third less likely to experience a pregnancy before age 18.
The Heritage report also observed that almost two-thirds of teens who do not make a virginity pledge are sexually active before age 18. By contrast, only 30% of teens who report having made a pledge become sexually active before age 18.
Even though those who pledge to chastity may eventually break their commitment, the report notes that delaying the onset of sexual activity has a number of positive effects. One to reduce the number of sexual partners by about half. Surveys cited in the report show that the benefits last into adulthood. For example, women who become sexually active in their early teen years are less likely to have stable marriages in their 30s when compared with women who wait.
Another advantage is the reduction in children born outside marriage. The report observes that children born and raised outside marriage are seven times more likely to live in poverty than those born and raised in intact married families. As well, they are more prone to a number of social problems, ranging from crime to emotional difficulties.
Adolescent girls who make a pledge to refrain from sexual activity are substantially less likely to give birth in their teens or early 20s. By age 18, 1.8% of those who were firmly pledged had given birth, compared with 3.8% of girls who did not make a pledge.
“Regrettably,” the study notes, “teens today live in a sex-saturated popular culture that celebrates casual sex at an early age.” Social institutions that teach abstinence values can play an important part in helping teens to media and peer pressure, concludes the report.
Further support for the efficacy of abstinence programs came in a study carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Washington Times reported July 16. The results attribute a 53% drop in teen pregnancy, from 1991 to 2000, to increased abstinence. Increased use of contraceptives accounted for 47% of the decline, according to the study.
Further data showed that girls aged 15 to 17 who were sexually active decreased from 50.6% in 1991 to 42.7% in 2001.
Comprehensive, in theory
Another report published by the Heritage Foundation helps explain why abstinence programs can help change teens’ behavior. The study, “Comprehensive Sex Education vs. Authentic Abstinence: A Study of Competing Curricula,” was published Aug. 10. It explained that in the past there were two basic approaches to sex education. There was the “safe sex” approach, which encourages teens to use contraception, especially condoms; and abstinence education, which focuses on delaying the onset of sexual activity.
In recent years a new approach, termed “abstinence-plus” or “comprehensive sexuality education,” has been developed. This combines, in theory, information on abstinence and contraception.
Research for the report analyzed nine major abstinence-plus curricula and nine abstinence curricula. It revealed that in practice the abstinence-plus programs devoted only 4.7% of their page content to the topic of abstinence and 0% to healthy relationships and marriage.
Moreover, a detailed analysis of the contents of comprehensive sex-ed programs shows that their aim is not to have teens abstain from sexual activity. Rather, their aim is to reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases that results from “unprotected” sexual activity. “Abstinence — or not having sex — is mentioned as one option that teens may consider to avoid risks, but the overwhelming emphasis is on reducing risk by encouraging contraceptive use.”
By contrast, the programs promoting abstinence “take a more holistic approach to human sexuality.” They place more emphasis on the social and psychological aspects of sex. As well, they examine themes such as love, intimacy and commitment. “Young people are taught that human sexuality is not primarily physical, but moral, emotional and psychological in nature.”
The abstinence programs also promote the idea that “personal happiness, love and intimacy are most likely to occur within the commitment of a faithful marriage and that, in contrast, casual sex with multiple partners is likely to undermine the natural process of bonding and intimacy.”
Where pregnancies rose
The ill effects of sex education programs that merely promote “safe sex” were made evident in a study published earlier this year in England. On March 14 the London-based Telegraph reported on a survey carried out by the Family Education Trust, entitled “Sex Education or Indoctrination?” The survey analyzed zones where the government’s Teen-age Pregnancy Unit had set up programs to reduce the number of girls falling pregnant.
The unit’s strategy involves more explicit sex education in schools, often conducted by nurses without teachers present. It also hands out free condoms and sends birthday cards when girls reach 14 asking them to attend confidential health checks without their parents.
The Trust’s report found that in most places, there was a rise in teen-age pregnancies following the implementation of these programs. One, in Cornwall, saw a 17% rise in teen-age pregnancies between 2001 and 2002. In York, teen pregnancies soared 34%.
Scotland saw similar results after programs were introduced to distribute free morning-after pills and condoms, the Sunday Times reported April 11. Girls aged 13 to 15 in the zone affected, the Lothians, were 14% more likely to get pregnant than their counterparts elsewhere in Scotland, compared with 3% before the program started.
The region was selected as a test area for the government’s Healthy Respect project. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, president of the Scottish bishops’ conference, said the Healthy Respect model had failed. He urged that it should not be expanded.
“This approach has failed to tackle the rise in sexually transmitted infections, unwanted conceptions and abortion levels,” he said. “Its value-free style should certainly not be used elsewhere in Scotland.” Evidence is mounting, on both sides of the Atlantic, on the advantages of programs that promote abstinence and a more comprehensive view of human sexuality.