WASHINGTON — In 1 school out of 3, American teenagers are not just encouraged to abstain from sex, they are taught that abstinence is the only appropriate option.
Two surveys released yesterday, the first to document the prevalence of "abstinence only" programs in American schools, found that those schools are most prevalent in the South and least common in the Northeast.
Such programs teach students they should wait until marriage, or at least until they are older, to have sex. There is no discussion of birth control to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases - except to talk about the shortcomings of such approaches.
Still, the two-thirds of US schools that do not provide an abstinence-only curriculum nonetheless deliver the abstinence message. Their programs discourage teen sex but also suggest use of contraception for students who choose not to abstain.
"School policy at the local level really does promote abstinence overwhelmingly," says Cory Richards, co-author of one of the reports, by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
Conservative and religious groups that promote abstinence have long argued that talking about birth control sends teenagers a mixed message. The welfare overhaul legislation of 1996 included a five-year, $250-million program for abstinence-only programs.
Fifteen states require that schools teach abstinence until marriage, and 13 require lessons about contraception. Some do both.
Most schools incorporate a discussion of both abstinence and birth control.
In 1995, 66 percent of teens reported having sex by the time they graduated from high school.
'The basis of our curriculum is abstinence, but human beings don't always follow that rule," says Katherine Nelson, who oversees health education at the Kent, Wash., School District, south of Seattle.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society