Media and Opponents are Wrong: Abstinence Education Has Not Failed

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Apr 24, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Media and Opponents are Wrong: Abstinence Education Has Not Failed Email this article
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by Michael Craven
April 24, 2007 Note: Michael Craven is considered a leading “cultural apologist” offering a rational biblical perspective in response to the various cultural forces that seek to reshape the philosophical consensus in America. He is the founding director for the Center for Christ and Culture and serves as an adjunct professor at Western Seminary in Portland.

This is what the mainstream media and opponents of abstinence-centered education would like you to believe in the wake of the most recent study. Headlines around the country read:

Abstinence classes have little effect, study finds – Seattle Times, 4/14
Abstinence programs fall short, study says – Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4/14
Study: Sex abstinence classes failed – Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/14
Study: Abstinence Classes Don’t Stop Sex – ABC News, 4/14
Study Casts Doubt on Abstinence-Only Programs – Washington Post, 4/14

William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a leading proponent of “safe-sex” education, said “This report should serve as the final verdict on the failure of the abstinence-only industry in this country, It shows, once again, that these programs fail miserably in actually helping young people behave more responsibly when it comes to their sexuality.”

The report, which was released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. appears, on the surface, to live up to the headlines. The study sought to determine the impact of abstinence education programs. Key findings include:

•Youth in the program group (abstinence classes) were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex; they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.

However, the report did go on to say that “Contrary to concerns raised by some critics of the Title V, Section 510 abstinence funding, program group youth were no more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex than control group youth.” Another key finding was:

•Program and control group youth did not differ in their rates of unprotected sex, either at first intercourse or over the last 12 months.

But again, the report reveals that students subjected to abstinence education also did not have higher rates of unprotected sex – a charge often leveled by “safe-sex” education advocates. Other key findings include:

•For both the program and control group youth, the reported mean age at first intercourse was identical, 14.9 years.

•Program and control group youth also did not differ in the number of partners with whom they had sex.

This all sounds rather damning to abstinence education. However, here are the problems with concluding that “abstinence education has failed.”

First, this study only examined four programs out of more than 900 currently in place. Furthermore, of the four programs observed in the study; one was voluntary and took place after school. Also, the Mathematica study targeted children who were in abstinence programs from ages 9-11 and those children were not evaluated until four to six years later.

The fact is, the targeted children were too young to absorb the abstinence message, and there was no continuation of abstinence education into the High School years when adolescents are most likely to engage in sexual activity.

Lastly, the study authors themselves stated that “Some policymakers and health educators have questioned whether the Title V, Section 510 program’s focus on abstinence elevates these STD risks. Findings from this study suggest that this is not the case, as program group youth are no more likely to engage in unprotected sex than their control group counterparts.”

The bottom line: this study hardly serves to condemn abstinence education and support a return to “comprehensive” sex education in the public schools. In fact, a recent HHS-sponsored conference in Baltimore unveiled evidence from more than two dozen other studies that abstinence programs are producing positive outcomes for youth.

There are now 15 evaluations documenting the effectiveness of abstinence education. (Of course, the media never reports on these.)

Even the authors of the Mathematica study acknowledge that “Nationally, rates of teen sexual activity have declined over the past 15 years,” since the advent of abstinence education beginning in the early 1990s.

Studies through the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show the rate of teen pregnancy has dropped approximately 35% from 1990 to 2002 with subsequent studies demonstrating the decline of teen pregnancy has only accelerated since 2002.

The Journal of Adolescent and Family Health published a study that concluded 66% of the decrease in teen pregnancy was due to teens choosing abstinence. The CDC commissioned a study which estimated 53% of the drop in teen pregnancy was due to teens choosing abstinence.

A significant finding of the Mathematica study, which has been ignored, is “that friends support for abstinence is a significant predictor of future sexual abstinence.” Adding that, “promoting support for abstinence among peer networks should be an important feature of future abstinence programs. While friends support for abstinence may have protective benefits, maintaining this support appears difficult for most youth as they move through adolescence.

At the time when most Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs are completed and youth enter their adolescent years, data from the study find that support for abstinence among friends drops dramatically.”

In essence, the study’s authors confirm the positive impact of abstinence education and argue for the expansion of abstinence education into the High School years since it is only the “values” of abstinence education that have any potential for strengthening this social support.

Let me conclude by showing you exactly what it is that “comprehensive” sex education advocates oppose. The following are the federal government guidelines for abstinence education under Title V, section 510 programs:

A Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity

B Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children

C Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems

D Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity

E Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects

F Teach that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society

G Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances

H Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

Comprehensive sex education advocates oppose the teaching of any “values” related to sexual activity since they regard sex as a “values-neutral” act in which the government has no interest.

As I have stated before, given the procreative potential inherent to sex, society has a compelling interest in the manner and place in which children come into being, therefore the government plays a valid role in securing this interest.

So, given the values espoused under abstinence education versus “no values” education offered within a cultural context that only supports the latter – which approach should we employ if the stated goal of both sides is to “reduce adolescent sexual activity and its consequences?”