Abstinence-only proponents misread scientific study to their favor

February 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

For the very first time, a review of an abstinence-only program shows that the program was effective in delaying sexual intercourse among its participants. The study, published in the current issue of the Archive of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, stands as the only existing scientific evidence that shows that an abstinence-only program was effective.Excited that science may for once be on their side, some opponents of comprehensive sex-ed are heralding this recent study as proof that the abstinence-only message not only works, but works better than comprehensive programs. But such claims grossly misinterpret the study. Abstinence-only proponents are choosing to see what they want to see, and manipulating the facts to back up their political agenda.

As it deals with the topic of sex-ed– an extremely controversial issue in this nation–the study is highly susceptible to being misconstrued, apparently even by the mainstream media. The Washington Post published the misleading headline “Abstinence-only education programs might work, study finds”; The New York Times writes “Abstinence-only education is found to delay sex”; and The Christian Science Monitor remarks “it is the most comprehensive study…to bolster an abstinence-only approach to reducing teen pregnancy”. As misinformation circulates around this recent study, here is what you need to know:

1. The “abstinence-only” program under review was more comprehensive than traditional abstinence-only curricula.
The program under review was actually more comprehensive than rigid abstinence-only curriculum. Instead of promoting an abstinence before marriage message, the program encouraged abstinence from sex until one feels ready, which is a very different message than the former. Because of that, the program does not actually meet the federal criteria of being an abstinence-only program.

That this particular program was found to be effective in delaying young teens from having sex and other more rigid abstinence-only have consistently been found to be ineffective may be due to the fact that the program under review is more comprehensive than traditional abstinence-only programs. The program was not infused with morality, was medically accurate, discussed condom use, and did not disparage contraception.
2. The study explicitly states that it should not be interpreted to mean that all abstinence-only programs are effective.
According to the study, “The results of this trial should not be taken to mean that all abstinence-only interventions are efficacious”. Foreseeing the danger that the study would be misused and misconstrued for political purposes, an accompanying editorial was published by the researchers, cautioning that public policy ought not to be based on one study, and policymakers ought not to “selectively use scientific literature to formulate a policy that meets preconceived ideologies.”

3.The study does not contradict, but reinforces, the body of knowledge about “what works” in sex education.

No where in the study does it claim that comprehensive sex education is ineffective or less effective than abstinence-only education. The two comprehensive curricula examined showed positive impacts on sexual risk behaviors among the targeted population, further adding to the body of evidence that comprehensive programs are effective. Those who participated in the comprehensive programs demonstrated lower incidences of multiple sexual partners , thereby lowering risk of HIV/STD infection.

4.The effectiveness of sex-ed programs depends on more than how many of its participants delay sex, but also on how well it is able to prepare them for when they choose to become sexually active.

The Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that promotes reproductive and sexual health, comments:

While the study showed that the abstinence-only program had a significant impact in delaying sexual initiation among participants, about one-third of students who had not had sex when they started the abstinence-only program had initiated sex at the two-year follow-up. In other words, while it is an important achievement to delay sexual initiation, it is likewise important to prepare students for the time when they do become sexually active, which more than two-thirds will have done by age 19.

The purpose of sex education is to empower and inform students so that they will be able to make wise and healthy decisions. Just because one “abstinence-only” curriculum (which, as noted above, was a whole lot more comprehensive than traditional abstinence programs) demonstrated effectiveness in delaying sexual initiation does not mean that our nation’s sex-ed curricula should move in the direction of withholding information from teenagers and young adults, and then crossing our fingers in hopes that they will make informed decisions.

Opponents of comprehensive sex education is touting this study as a landmark, and a game-changer–a reason to spur even more government investments in abstinence-only programs. The media, hungry for attention grabbing news, seems to be doing something similar. But this  study is not a game-changer. Its own authors warn against it being used and manipulated to change public policy and to promote a particular ideology. The study, in fact, leaves intact the substantial body of evidence that shows that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective.

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