Study: Abstinence Education Yields Results

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A new study in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine finds that an abstinence-only intervention was effective in getting very young teens to delay sexual initiation. But the program is not the same as the abstinence-until-marriage programs funded by the Bush administration.


A new study on sex education shows that an abstinence-only program can work. It's one of the first studies to show that - studies published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

But as NPR's Brenda Wilson reports, the program studied is quite different from the traditional abstinence-until-marriage programs that have been at the center of the sex ed debate.

BRENDA WILSON: Study author John Jemmott, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says he did the study to see if an abstinence-only program could be effective if it used teaching methods that have been successful in sex education programs. In this study, specially-trained teachers didn't just lecture teens about not having sex, they engaged them in discussions about what it would mean if they did.

Professor JOHN JEMMOTT (Social Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania): They begin by considering, you know, what are their goals and dreams for the future. What would they like to do five years from now? What would they like to do ten years from now? And then they have to consider how sexual involvement might make it difficult or impossible to achieve some of those goals.

WILSON: And it worked. For up to two years, the majority of the teens, 67 percent of them, did not have sex compared to 48 percent of students who did not get any sex education. This study was done with more than 600 African-American students in four middle schools in one city in the Northeast. Given the intense debate over abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex education, it's important to note what this study is not about, says Lauren Scher of Concentric Research & Evaluation.

Ms. LAUREN SCHER (Concentric Research & Evaluation): This study in particular is looking at one particular intervention. You can't take this study and say, see, abstinence until marriage works because this is not an abstinence-until-marriage program.

WILSON: Such programs were prominent during the Bush administration. But they are no longer being funded by the federal government. While the new abstinence-only program worked with younger teens, Scher says it's important to note that when the researchers caught up with most of the teens two years later, many had become sexually active. It would've been better, she says, if the researchers had followed the teens to see when and if they became pregnant.

Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow with the Family Research Council, which supports abstinence-until-marriage programs, says that he hopes the new study will encourage the Obama administration to reconsider funding abstinence programs. But that doesn't mean he would support discussing contraception with teens, which this program does.

Mr. PETER SPRIGG (Senior Fellow, Family Research Council): You don't want dilute that message with a message regarding other interventions. And I think that this study showed it was truly an abstinence-only program that showed success, not abstinence until marriage necessarily, which is the one difference from what we might recommend, but a truly abstinence-only message was effective.

WILSON: Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy says this study should show communities that prefer abstinence-only programs, that there is a way that they can be done effectively.

Ms. SARAH BROWN (CEO, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy): The fact that we now have what looks like a well-designed, balanced program that's accurate, reasonable, common sense - the fact that it actually seems to have effects for a full two years is, I think, very good news, particularly for these young teens.

WILSON: But both the author and analysts say further studies should be done to see if this abstinence-only program works in other settings with young teens who have different backgrounds.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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