Abstinence-Only Doesn't Work | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Abstinence-Only Doesn't Work

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—the kind the federal government backs with millions in tax dollars—don't reduce teen pregnancies or STDs, according to "Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases," a report from the non-partisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

The report is an exhaustive summary of all of the research in the area, evaluating their effectiveness. Programs that include comprehensive sex education are effective, even without millions in annual tax dollars backing them.

"Teen pregnancy in the last decade or so has decreased by quite a bit … so we're really making good headway in this regard," said Heather Boonstra, senior public-policy associate with the Guttmacher Institute in Washington, D.C., which advances sexual and reproductive health worldwide. "If we want to get further, we do have to think about the programs we're funding and whether or not they're doing what we want them to do."

"It boils down to money," said Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Hinds, a strong advocate of abstinence-only programs. "You've got a federal fund out of Title V that says, 'abstinence only,' and you've got a federal fund under Title X that promotes prevention. The federal government is sending a mixed message."

While there may be some overlap between Title V and Title X programs, their audiences are not the same.

Title V provides funds to teach abstinence before marriage in schools. When Congress established the program in 1997, they made $50 million per year available to states, which provide $3 for every four federal dollars. Federal funding for abstinence-only programs increased an average of $22.1 million per year since 2000, according to statistics compiled by the non-profit Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The proposed amount for 2006 was $206 million, up from $170.5 million in 2005.

Title X is the Federal Family Planning Program, which tries to reduce unintended pregnancy by providing contraceptive and related health care to low-income women. "Title X services include ... Pap smears, breast exams, screening and treatment for STIs, and screening for hypertension, diabetes, and anemia," according to the Advocates for Youth Web site. The majority of women—73 percent—using Title X-funded clinics are 20 or older, not school age children and teens, according to Planned Parenthood.

Donald Taylor, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, responded to Jackson Free Press inquiries with a statement via e-mail. Taylor wrote that "abstinence is the only proven method for prevention of teen pregnancy, and it has been shown to be effective 100 percent of the time." Without sex, in other words, there is no pregnancy.

But the issue is not that simple. "Programs that stress abstinence as the only acceptable behavior for unmarried teens have little evidence of delaying sexual activity or reducing other aspects of sexual behavior," the report states. To reduce teen pregnancy, programs must educate teens about sex and reach those already sexually active with contraceptive information. Abstinence-only programs don't "allow any conversation about contraception unless, of course, you're talking about the failure rates," Boonstra said. "That kind of narrow approach is not effective in helping young people delay sexual activity, reduce their number of partners or prepare them for when they will become sexually active."

Mississippi had the third highest teen birth rate in the country in 2000, with African Americans outnumbering white and Hispanic populations almost two to one. And with resources coming almost exclusively from the federal government, the programs here are strictly abstinence-only programs. The only alternative is to entirely self-fund sex education.

Eight states, including Maine, New Jersey and California, are opting to forgo federal funds in lieu of programs they deem more effective. "States are in a quandary," Boonstra said, between receiving federal funding and sponsoring more effective programs.

"The ultimate goal is to … stop teen pregnancy, and whatever will work to do that … you have to support," Fleming said. Still, he wants to believe abstinence-only programs get the job done. Fleming mentioned Uganda's success, having dropped their HIV/AIDS rates by more than 20 percent in 10 years.

"There isn't any evidence that (abstinence programs) worked in Uganda," Boonstra responded. "In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ... there was leadership in the country that was talking about AIDS, there were people dying of AIDS and people saw that and naturally reacted by changing their own behavior." A 2005 Columbia University study found that the one strategy that made the most difference in Uganda was the use of condoms, something the Bush administration downplays both domestically and in foreign policy.

And young people in America aren't as stupid as many would like to believe. According to the report, comprehensive sex education does not promote promiscuity, nor does it send a confusing message to adolescents.

"Emphasizing both abstinence and protections for those who do have sex is a realistic, effective approach that does not appear to confuse young people," the report concludes.

Download "Emerging Answers 2007" at http://thenationalcampaign.org/EA2007/.

Previous Comments


Ronni M. Thanks for this article. With MS leading the nation in new reported cases of HIV/AIDS for the population discussed, one should know that the problem here is really two-fold: One is the unwanted/un-needed pregancies for teens/pre-teens and the other is the disease factor. We must teach the benefits of the postment of sex before the age of making an informed decision; however, there must be education also for what to do when the answer is "YES."


It's funny to me how gential warts and herpes viruses almost NEVER enter into these safe sex discussions even given statistics that suggest as much as 1/3 of the population is infected, the fact that neither can be eliminated only treated which while neither is deadly they can be life changing, the risks that both viruses have on pregnancies, and the studies suggesting that condoms have low to 0% effectiveness in protecting someone from an infected partner. Perhaps if these programs are comprehensive in going beyond just the HIV/AIDS risks, which are great, that we might see a more effective campaign to slow the teen/pre-teen rush to have sex.

Jeff Lucas

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