April 14, 2007

Surprise! Study Finds Abstinence-Only Education Does Not Lead to Abstinence

“In an emerging revolt against abstinence-only sex education, states are turning down millions of dollars in federal grants, unwilling to accept White House dictates that the money be used for classes focused almost exclusively on teaching chastity,” the Los Angeles Times reported this week.

Those states are on to something.

On Friday, a report produced by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. for the Department of Health and Human Services noted the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education. The study is available here in its entirety (PDF); here’s an overview that describes the impact of the four abstinence education programs under review. From the executive summary:

Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age. Contrary to concerns raised by some critics of the Title V, Section 510 abstinence funding, however, program group youth were no more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex than control group youth.

Scott Swenson at RH Reality Check has the reaction from all sides:

“This report should serve as the final verdict on the failure of the abstinence-only industry in this country,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS). “It shows, once again, that these programs fail miserably in actually helping young people behave more responsibly when it comes to their sexuality,” Smith continued.

In 1996, the federal government attached a provision to the welfare reform law establishing a federal program for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This program, Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, dedicated $50 million per year to be distributed among states that choose to participate. States accepting the funds are required to match every four federal dollars with three state-raised dollars (for a total of $87.5 million annually, and $787.5 million for the eight years from fiscal year 1998 through 2006). Programs that receive the Title V funding are prohibited from discussing methods of contraception, including condoms, except in the context of failure rates.

On a call yesterday organized by the Abstinence Clearinghouse, abstinence-only proponents were clearly rocked by the potentially ruinous news in the report. High profile abstinence-only advocate, Robert Rector, led the preemptive damage-control planning. He outlined several strategies the abstinence-only movement could use to rationalize the findings in the report saying, “The other spin I think is very important is not [program] effectiveness, but rather the values that are being taught,” Rector said. Whether or not these programs work is a “bogus issue,” Rector continued.

How bogus? 10 years worth of public funding to the tune of $1.5 billion.

And the value of disseminating ineffective and sometimes dangerous and demeaning misinformation (PDF)? Priceless.


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