It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. The abstinence-only sex-education programs on which the federal government has been spending around $176 million a year have been shown to have zero effect. That's right: zero.
"Abstinence-only" classes in public schools, funded by provisions of the 1996 federal welfare reform law, focus on the message of waiting until marriage. They do not teach about contraception or safe sex.
But a national study that tracked 2,000 young people over several years has found no evidence that such classes as currently taught actually increased rates of sexual abstinence. It found that program participants had similar numbers of sexual partners compared with peers who were not in the specialized abstinence programs.
Among teens who had sex by the end of the period of the study, the average age of their first intercourse was the same for participants as for nonparticipants: 14.9 years.
This is especially disappointing given that earlier research seemed to indicate that abstinence programs were at least changing teen attitudes, if not behavior.
The study, carried out by the nonpartisan firm Mathematica Policy Research Inc., did turn up some interesting threads for further study. It suggests that peer relationships are important predictors for abstinence – in other words, that young people will refrain from sex if their close friends do, too. The study also found no particular increase in unprotected sex.
Sex education, of course, is primarily the responsibility of parents, and shouldn't be confined solely to the classroom. Parents, along with religious communities, can impart messages of restraint, unselfishness, and commitment that shape relationships. Where these values are lacking in the home, then public schools can have a role, one with difficult policy choices, as this report points out.
Critics of abstinence-only have used the study to say, "I told you so!"
"This is social agenda masquerading as teen pregnancy prevention," said Martha Kempner of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US. "This administration has allowed ideology to trump science." Voices on the other side have called for the programs to continue. And a top federal official, commenting that the study lacked rigor, said the government has no intention of changing funding priorities in light of the study – which was conducted for the US Department of Health and Human Services.
So where do we go from here?
To confront the apparent failures of abstinence programs is not to give up on teen abstinence as a standard.
The welfare reform that led to these classes was a collaboration between President Clinton and a Republican Congress. Now the Bush administration, faced with allegations of ignoring science, has an opportunity to refute that charge by heeding these findings and retooling its efforts.
It may be that sex education that includes abstinence is more useful than abstinence-only classes. The head of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy said Mathematica's research supports what other studies show: "The most effective programs are those that say abstinence is the best choice but birth control and protection are also worth knowing about."