Is abstinence message reaching teens?

Frances Olajide may not sound like your garden-variety countercultural type, but she's taken a step that puts her well outside the mainstream of eighth-grade society. She's promised herself and her friends that she will not have sex until she is married.

Her reasons are partly based on the morality she learned at home, and partly on just plain common sense.

"The goal is to stay abstinent, because it can block out a lot of bad things," says Frances, a member of the Best Friends pro-abstinence club for girls at Ryan Middle School in central Houston. "It has a lot to with morals. But it also has to do with pregnancy, too. If you're a kid, it's hard for you to raise a kid."

Not long ago, Frances' common-sense ideals would have sounded like impractical remnants of Sunday school thinking. But teen-pregnancy rates have dropped to their lowest levels in recent decades, and some observers say the abstinence-only movement deserves a share of the credit.

Certainly, the drop is the result of a variety of causes - from the increased use of contraceptives to the improved economy's salutary effect on families. Yet supporters say abstinence programs at churches and schools are having a small but powerful effect on America's teens.

"I would not undersell delaying and abstinence programs," says Don Browning, a divinity professor at the University of Chicago. "People who are smart enough to take rational actions, like responding to the improved economy by getting jobs, or by making use of contraceptives, are also smart enough to hear those messages about self-control creating a healthier future."

Whatever the reasons, teen-pregnancy rates dropped 14 percent nationwide from 1990 to 1995, according to a 1998 survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. The decline was sharpest among black teens - 21 percent - reaching a level that is now the lowest in 40 years.

A separate 1998 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found evidence that teen sex rates have dropped as well - some 11 percent from 1991 to 1997. Even so, not all Americans are abstaining. Nearly 500,000 teenage girls become pregnant each year, according to the JAMA.

In response, a growing number of parents, pastors, educators, and philanthropists are unifying behind a common message of sexual restraint.

Some groups, like the massive True Love Waits campaign sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, encourage teens to sign a pledge card promising to delay sex until marriage. Others, like Best Friends and Free Teens of Westwood, N.J., preach a lesson of self-respect through self-restraint, and encourage teens to share their experiences and offer support to each other when they feel challenged - or tempted.

"We don't talk about contraception," says Crystal Wright, spokeswoman at the Washington headquarters of Best Friends, which has 4,000 girls registered nationwide. "We feel that when you are teaching a child to say no, teaching contraception negates it.... What we teach is that if you postpone sex until your high school graduation, or better yet, until marriage, you're going to have a healthier, happier life."

But while those in the abstinence movement can point to individual lives that have been changed by their message of self-restraint, critics say there is still little evidence to show that this message is the main force in driving down teen-pregnancy rates. In fact, most public-health experts regard the pro-abstinence crowd as little more than a Band-Aid.

"I think it's good to teach kids a message about values and to think about delaying sex," says Debra Delgado, a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "But there is not any evidence of the effect of abstinence-only programs that stands up to scrutiny."

Like many experts in youth development, Ms. Delgado favors a comprehensive sex-education curriculum that includes discussion of birth control, contraceptives, and career counseling, as well as discussing the benefits of delaying sexual activity.

"The longer you can get kids to delay sex, the more likely they will protect themselves when they have sex," says Delgado, adding, "The evidence is clear that today's teens are having fewer kids."

But if the members of Best Friends at Ryan Middle School are any indication, there is at least some indication that traditional morals and self-restraint are making a comeback, one student at a time.

Kirby Gibbs says Best Friends has helped her to become focused on her goals, such as academics and a growing interest in acting, and helped her to choose her friends more carefully. And by standing up for what she believes in, she occasionally finds that other students follow her example.

"In sixth grade, I wasn't so self-confident - I worried about what other people thought," says Kirby. "But being in Best Friends, I learned you don't have to be like everyone else. Once another person sees that you're not into having sex, that can give them confidence. They see they're not the only ones."

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