Chicago Tribune Editorial - The failure of abstinence ed
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
August 6, 2007
Congress has spent $1.5 billion in the last 10 years on programs that deliver a single message: Abstain from sex until you marry. That's a good message for young people about how to stay healthy and safe. Taken alone, though, it doesn't appear to be a terribly effective message.
A recent study of 2,000 children who were tracked over 10 years found no evidence that abstinence-only programs delayed the start of sexual activity by teens. The study found that such programs didn't increase condom use by teens who do have sex. The study was commissioned by the federal government and conducted by the non-partisan firm Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
Sexual activity by teens declined through the 1990s but has essentially been level since 2001, roughly tracking the time Congress has put big money into abstinence education. That doesn't argue for the effectiveness of the programs.
Yet the U.S. House recently approved $204 million for abstinence education, a $28 million increase over current spending. Democratic leaders in the House say they agreed to the increase to draw Republican votes to a health and education spending bill.
The view here has been that the federal experiment in funding abstinence programs should be given a chance to see if it works. It has had the chance, and the evidence isn't encouraging. If Congress is going to put money into sex education in schools, it ought to promote broader programs that stress abstinence, but also include information on the correct use of contraception and the treatment and testing of sexually transmitted diseases.
Under federal law, abstinence-only programs cannot include discussion about contraception, except to discuss its failure rates. An increasing number of states -- 11 so far -- have rejected the federal money.
There is a longer track record for comprehensive sex education than for abstinence programs, and it has been a positive track record. Teens who have been through such programs tend to delay the onset of sexual activity, more often use condoms when they do have sex and have fewer partners. This approach is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association.
It's a good idea to encourage abstinence, to emphasize that it is the only certain way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. But such teaching already is part of comprehensive sex education. The results of this 10-year experiment are in. It's time for Congress to spend its money more wisely.