Rachel was right. I was skeptical when Rachel Owen, the executive director of the Informed Choices Medical Clinics, suggested an article on abstinence education and began talking about a study that demonstrated its effectiveness (Efficacy of a theory-based abstinence only intervention over 24 months). Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always agreed that abstinence is the best sexual choice for teenagers, but how can abstinence education work in a society where teens are constantly bombarded with sexual media content and taught moral relativism? I knew that like most important issues facing our nation, there are two impassioned camps wrestling with the topic of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Both camps have their own theories, rhetoric, and studies. It would be tough to distill truth out of this quagmire, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. Reluctantly, I decided to do a little homework before committing myself.
I discovered my first mistake was in understanding the camp names. Camp 1 is, of course, called Abstinence Education. I found that opponents like to insert “only” (Abstinence-only education) so that it sounds more like a “Just Say No” campaign that completely dismisses the problem. But it turns out that abstinence education equips students with information to help them make the healthiest sexual choice, abstinence. I was surprised to learn that AE, as it’s sometimes abbreviated, does include education on contraception, but upholds abstinence as the only proven protection against STI’s and unwanted pregnancies. Camp 2 doesn’t do this. Although its camp name sounds objective, Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) is a smokescreen for programs that approach sexual education from the assumption that teen sex is normal and healthy and can be safe if you’re educated about contraception. CSE denies that there are any risks beyond STI’s and pregnancy that a sexually-active teen has to deal with and insists that teens are as capable as adults at making wise decisions regarding their sexuality. A U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee referred to AE as “Sexual Risk Avoidance Education” (SRA), throughout its report entitled “A Better Approach to Teenage Pregnancy Prevention”. The Subcommittee summed up the beginning assumptions of these two camps very nicely when it stated, “SRA takes a risk avoidance approach to teenage sexual behavior and presents abstinence as the best choice. CSE maintains that teen sexual behavior is inevitable and that teens need to learn risk reduction to avoid unwanted pregnancies.” So it’s no surprise that a 2007 Zogby survey found that parents prefer abstinence education 2:1 over comprehensive sex education.
Planned Parenthood has now mixed things up by adopting their own version of abstinence education which has received a grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health. Planned Parenthood’s new solution to teen pregnancy and STIs is “outercourse” which introduces youth to sex play. Why would Planned Parenthood introduce an abstinence-based sex education curriculum when they have consistently fought AE education and argued that it doesn’t work? Maybe they are expecting this new approach to fail and fuel their business.
Next I thought I should learn about our nation’s history of sex education. What I found is that the U.S. began federally funding sex education in the 60’s and 70’s in response to the concern over teen pregnancy. The education began primarily as sexual reproduction and contraception taught in biology classes. The AIDS epidemic in the 80’s bolstered the already rising concern over STDs and teen pregnancy, and in 1996, thanks to the influence of Christian conservative groups, Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act which expanded funding for abstinence education programs. Then in 2010 President Obama eliminated mandatory abstinence education from the federal budget, shifting the funds to what he called “evidence-based” programs.
I was able to find studies done by both camps. The advocates of CSE stand by the 2008 Mathmatica Study which was conducted solely to undermine the acceptance of abstinence education without addressing the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of comprehensive sex education. The National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) has plenty of information about the Mathematica Study and its flaws. Their website (abstinenceassociation.org) and materials also include information on 17 different independent studies that have been done proving the effectiveness of abstinence-based sex education. An interesting study entitled “Efficacy of an abstinence-based intervention over 24 months: a randomized controlled trial with young adolescents” by Jemmott III, J.B., Jemmott, L.S and Fong, G.T., published in February 2010 tested four different approaches against one another. Their randomly selected 6th and 7th grade students received either abstinence-only, safer sex only, combined abstinence and safer-sex interventions, or a general health intervention that served as the control group. Their results showed that the abstinence-only model reduced the percentage of adolescents who reported sexual intercourse. More convincing to me than studies are the Center of Disease Control’s reports that evidence our country’s decline in teenage sexual activity and teenage pregnancy rates corresponding to the federal funding of abstinence education. Christopher Doyle’s article entitled “What Science Says: Is Sex Education Policy in the U.S. Being Driven by Data or Ideology?” argues that this data should be strongly considered, and he shows the correlation between the abstinence education funding and the decline in unmarried teen birth rates. How can you argue with results?
That’s what makes President Obama’s new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program so obscure and volatile. Putting our money into effectively proven programs is a commendable idea, but we’re apparently contradicting ourselves by dismantling funding that has proven effective. Most parents know that teen sex is dangerous; why isn’t it just as obvious to policy makers? Currently, one-third of the “evidence-based” sex education programs funded by our government are abstinence-based. When you consider the whole of government funding, NAEA says the difference between CSE and AE funding is really 16:1. In February of this year “The Abstinence Education Reallocation Act” was introduced in both the House and the Senate to address the need to fund programs that truthfully present the value of abstinence as the only safe answer to teen pregnancy and teen STDs. Hopefully, there will continue to be studies on the effectiveness of abstinence education that can receive recognition and influence our national policies regarding teen pregnancy prevention.
So in the end, I didn’t answer the question of “how” abstinence education can convince a society of young adults to wait for sex. I can only see that it does, and that the truth can be presented in such a way that the youth of our country can be saved from the traps of sexual promiscuity. Their hearts and minds and bodies can be kept safe from the damage that unhealthy sexuality creates. I learned that NAEA and Equipping Youth have information for parents and citizens who want to become more involved in advocating abstinence education. And I also learned, of course, that once again Rachel was right.
How do you feel about sex education? See how your views match up with Planned Parenthood’s Agenda by taking Iowa Right to Life’s Planned Parenthood Sex Ed Quiz at http://iowartl.org/what-s-new/hot-topics/take-our-planned-parenthood-sex-ed-quiz/.
Doyle, Christopher. (July-August 2009). What Science Says: Is Sex Education Policy in the U.S. Being Driven by Data or Ideology? The Youth Connection. Retrieved 3/15/2013 from: www.youthdevelopment.org/download/JulyAugust-TheYouthConnection.pdf.
Jemmott III, J.B.; Jemmott, L.S.; Fong, G.T. (Feb. 2010). Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months: A Randomized Controlled Trial With Young Adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine Vol 164, 152-159. Retrieved 2/28/2013 from:
http://www.asc.upenn.edu/assests/other/pressreleases/jemmott abstinence study2010.pdf.
U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee. (July 2012). A Better Approach to Teenage Pregnancy Prevention: Sexual Risk Avoidance. Retrieved 2/28/2013 from: www.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/files/analysis/20120706riskavoidance.pdf
www.iowartl.org www.abstinenceassociation.org www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats / www.equippingyouth.org