The Associated Press has a story today entitled Report: Abstinence Programs Don’t Work. It was about a recent study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The study concluded that “At present there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence or reduces the number of sexual partners” among teenagers.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the study on the Internet, or even a decent summary of it. As a result, I do not know how many abstinence-only programs the study considered. This is an important question, for the last study that supposedly “debunked” abstinence-only education, the 2007 Mathematica Study ordered by Congress, examined only 1% of all U.S. Title V abstinence-only programs (see Mathematica Findings Too Narrow). This is hardly enough to make a sweeping generalization. Moreover, there have been studies in peer-reviewed journals that have documented the success of abstinence-only programs in certain regions (see Robert Rector’s list).
One problem with the NCPTUT study is that it may promote a product. The study was written by Douglas Kirby, a senior research scientist at ETR Associates. According to the AP article, “The sponsors of the study praised Kirby for his ‘thorough research’ and for being ‘fair and evenhanded,’ but they also acknowledged that ETR Associates developed and markets several of the sex education curricula reviewed in the report. Several of the previous studies that were reviewed also were written by Kirby.” So there is a possible conflict-of-interest.
I liked the comments of Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association: “Though abstinence education has received significant federal funding for less than a decade, studies already credit abstinence programs for delaying sexual initiation, discontinuing sexual behavior and reducing both the number of sexual partners and pregnancies among teens…Kirby has previously admitted that it took more than 10 years for comprehensive sex education to document any positive results, but failed to note that in his review” (see NAEA Disputes Ideologically Driven Findings of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies) That is a good point, especially considering that government spends more money to promote contraceptives than abstinence (see this article).
I don’t have the motivation tonight to review all of the studies and statistics on this issue. There are state and private studies that oppose abstinence-only sex education, and there is research that upholds its effectiveness. I would have to look at the studies themselves to see if their evidence matches their conclusions, as well as consider teen pregnancy statistics. These are worthwhile endeavors, but they will have to wait for another day.
But I will note two things that caught my eye. The NCPTUT itself offers evidence that teenagers and college students are statistically more open to abstinence than ever before (see Facts About Abstinence), so the abstinence message must be having some impact. Also, I checked the web site of SIECUS, a big promoter of condom-based sex education, and it said, “Young people who used a condom during their sexual debut were half as likely as those who did not to test positive for gonorrhea or Chlamydia, even though the two groups reported similar numbers of sexual partners” (see Study Finds Teens Who Use Condoms During First Intercourse Are Healthier, Not More Promiscuous). Half as likely? I prefer not possible, which abstinence alone guarantees.