WASHINGTON-A new federally funded study shows the effectiveness of abstinence education among a group of 12-year-olds in an urban public school: After two years, 33 percent of the students in the abstinence class had lost their virginity compared to 52 percent of the students enrolled in a class on safe sex.
The findings throw into question the Obama administration's decision to eliminate $170 million in funding for abstinence programs, in light of the president's promise to "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." The study, released Monday in the February edition of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, concluded that "abstinence-only interventions" might be important for delaying sexual debuts.
While the study focused on an American public school, the researchers noted that the results could have international implications: "Abstinence is the only approach that is acceptable in some communities and settings in both the U.S. and other countries." Abstinence education abroad remains controversial, especially as relates to U.S. policy in fighting AIDS.
"I am not surprised to see these study results since experience in Africa has shown that abstinence-oriented programs can indeed work," Edward Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University, wrote in an email. "It's a tragedy that there is so much venomous polarization over this issue."
Members of the Obama administration didn't put much weight on the study's results.
"No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants if there's promise that it achieves the goal of teen pregnancy prevention," Nicholas Papas, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told The Washington Post.
"I'm not optimistic that this is going to change the decision to end abstinence until marriage funding," said Eve Jackson, the coordinator of Peers Educating and Encouraging Relationship Skills (PEERS), an abstinence program in Indiana schools that lost its federal funding when the White House changed hands. "I've been around long enough to know. . . . Politicians, they don't care about outcomes, they care about their own ideologies."
PEERS serves 50 school districts in Indiana but lost its federal grant funding after nine years. The program is desperately looking for other donors to fill the $568,000 gap that will open when the grant ends in September. PEERS picks student leaders to mentor younger students about delaying sex, and federally funded research on the program showed that students outside the peer program were twice as likely to have sex as those in it. (See "Learning to Wait," Jan. 30, 2010.)
"We don't teach about religion, but what we teach is character," said Jackson. "It's not just handing them a condom, it's equipping them with the social skills and character that they need. . . . They have to look ahead to their whole life. Do they want to be in healthy relationships?"
Past studies of abstinence programs have issued mixed verdicts, and the current administration has shifted $114 million toward "pregnancy prevention" programs. That comprehensive approach "does not put any kind of priority at all on abstinence," said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, adding that it sends the message that teenagers can be sexually active as long as they use condoms.
The abstinence class in the study did not teach students that they should save sex for marriage, but rather that abstinence was the best prevention for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.