Science or Ideology?: What Lies Behind the Abstinence Education Debate

interns Contributor
Font Size:

Abstinence education is back in the headlines, prompted by a new study that shows such intervention can reduce teen sexual activity in the long term.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, appeared in this month’s issue of the medical journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, a publication of the American Medical Association.

It found that, two years after receiving an eight-hour abstinence-only intervention, middle school participants were a third less likely to initiate sexual activity, compared to peers who attended a non-sex-ed health class instead. Moreover, although the abstinence-only intervention did not teach contraception, sexually active participants were no less likely to use contraception.

In contrast, sex-ed programs that taught contraception only (i.e., safe sex) or a combination of abstinence and contraception (i.e., comprehensive) did not delay sexual initiation or increase contraceptive use.

The study used a highly rigorous evaluation method, which randomly assigned students to one of the intervention programs or a general health class for comparison.

While these findings are encouraging, they are not wholly surprising. Eleven prior studies have reported similar results.

Foes of abstinence education, however, continue to disregard the accumulating evidence, ostensibly in the name of sound social science. In truth, such claims are often disingenuous.

Take, for example, responses from a panel of experts during a 2008 congressional hearing on abstinence education.

To the panel, Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) directed the following question:

If provided evidence of abstinence education programs are as or more effective than comprehensive sex education, would you support optional federal funding for such programs?

The answers are revealing

Six of the eight panelists gave an unequivocally “No.” They include a Columbia University medical professor, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, Chair of the Committee on Adolescence at the American Academy of Pediatrics, a youth speaker, and a policy advocate.

If not social science research, what then motivates the opposition?

Heritage senior research fellow Robert Rector provides an acute diagnosis. The debate about sex education is really a debate about values. Authentic abstinence education, he notes, teaches that school-aged children should abstain from sex until they have at least graduated from high school; that sex should involve love, intimacy, and commitment, qualities that are most likely to be found in marriage; and that marriage can benefit children, adults and society. Despite the fact that nearly all parents want their children to be taught these messages, Congress and the Obama administration recently eliminated all federally funded abstinence programs.

Heritage’s Robert Rector Concludes:

In the place of abstinence, they will fund programs that teach that teen sex is fine as long as the teen uses a condom. Because almost no parents approve of this message, the new programs will be wrapped in deceptive labels.