Abstinence-only education free of traditional, unrealistic, wait-until-marriage preaching can delay teens’ sexual debuts, researchers reported Monday. The landmark study, published in the February issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is the first to show that an abstinence-only program can successfully reduce the number of teens losing their virginity, challenging the reams of research that show otherwise. Could it color the country’s approach to preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs among teens?
Possibly, but the program researchers studied differs from conventional ones in a major way. Instead of simply disparaging pre-marital sex or condom usage, the program’s teachers encouraged the (mostly 12-year-old) black students in the abstinence-only control group to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of having sex. Many students recorded more cons than pros. Two years later, a third of students in the abstinence-only group said they’d had sex, compared with nearly half of the students who learned about healthy behavior and safe sex in addition to abstinence.
Though proponents of abstinence-only sex ed are cheering the study’s results, it’s unlikely to revive enthusiasm for religious or morals-based abstinence programs. In four of the five states with the highest teen birth rates—Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona—schools are not required to teach sex ed, but if they do, they must teach abstinence. The increasing numbers of pregnant high schoolers in these states, in addition to other factors, shows their model is not working. Even Bristol Palin, whose son recently turned one, told Fox last year that teaching young people abstinence is “not realistic at all.”
President Obama eliminated more than $150 million in federal funding for abstinence-based sex ed programs (which had not been scientifically proven effective), but funded a new $114 million pregnancy prevention initiative that would only suppoprt programs whose effectiveness is scientifically assured. When asked whether the new study’s results would alter the president’s sex education policies, White House spokesman Reid Cherlin told the Associated Press that “Our approach is to use science and evidence to fund what works, while leaving room for innovation and new thinking. We feel the policy we introduced at the beginning of the administration accomplishes that.” But Health and Human Services Department spokesman Nicholas Pappas told the Washington Post that the new study may signal a policy change: “No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants…”