Study: 'Abstinence Only' Goes Only So Far

A government-funded study of sex-education programs that promote "abstinence only" concludes that they are ineffective in reducing sexual activity among teenagers.

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A new government study says programs that focus on teaching abstinence to young teens have no effect on the likelihood that they will have sex. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, supporters of these efforts are unconcerned. They see the study as a sign that abstinence education should be expanded through high school.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Does it make sense for the government to spend $170 million a year on abstinence education? The study released today is supposed to answer that question. Here's the short answer from Chris Trenholm of the research firm Mathematica.

Mr. CHRIS TRENHOLM (Researcher, Mathematica): We don't find any impacts of the program on sexual abstinence, so there's no difference between the youth in the program group and the youth in the control group and the proportion of who have abstained from sex.

ABRAMSON: The study looked at four programs that served 2000 rural and urban kids. Half got abstinence counseling, half did not. Kids in both groups were just as likely to have sex at the tender age of 14 years and nine months. Parents, you can now remove your fingernails from the steering wheel.

Though this research was long awaited, it will not end the controversy over this issue. Pro-abstinence groups quickly sent out a counter message. They said the field has advanced a great deal since the study began in 1999. Kimberly Martinez with the Abstinence Clearinghouse noted that the study only looked at programs targeting kids in the last grades of elementary school and in middle school, where much of the federal money is concentrated.

Ms. KIMBERLY MARTINEZ (Executive Director, Abstinence Clearinghouse): Targeting youth only at a young age is not sufficient for them to make the choice for abstinence later in life. The message has to be reinforced.

ABRAMSON: Other supporters said they have evidence their programs work - if kids get a steady diet of abstinence education throughout high school. Critics of these programs said the study just adds to a pile of data, showing that kids get nothing from programs that focus on abstinence until marriage. William Smith is with the Sexuality Information and Education Council.

Mr. WILLIAM SMITH (Vice President for Public Policy, Sexuality Information and Education Council): We've spent $1.5 billion on abstinence until marriage programs over 25 years, and we still don't have a single shred of evidence that show that they work.

ABRAMSON: Smith says it is important to talk about abstinence as part of a comprehensive message. Harry Wilson with the Department of Health and Human Services says he agrees. He says this study demonstrates the need for further study.

Mr. HARRY WILSON (Associate Commissioner, Department of Health and Human Services): The abstinence is a tool. It's not the end all. It's not abstinence only; it's just a tool in the toolbox of very many other interventions that the Health and Human Services Department would like to find out which works the best.

ABRAMSON: But abstinence education critics say, in fact, the administration has been pushing this approach almost exclusively at the expense of comprehensive programs that are more effective. Researcher Chris Trenholm says the study did undercut one fear raised about abstinence education.

Mr. TRENHOLM: One of the concerns that's been raised by some critics of the Title 5 - Section 5-10 funding, is that it would lead to high rates of unprotected sex because the focus is exclusively on abstinence. And our study doesn't find that.

ABRAMSON: The study did find that support from peers was somewhat helpful in helping kids abstain from having premarital sex.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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