May 17, 2007
A new study by the research firm Mathematica has been hailed by advocates of the sexual revolution and groups that have spent decades providing contraceptives and abortions to minor children without parental knowledge. Funded by the federal department of Health and Human Services, Mathematica examined four abstinence education programs for elementary students and middle-schoolers. The study found that after an average of five years, the students who had taken the abstinence instruction were no less likely to engage in sexual intercourse than students who had not received the instruction at all.
At first glance, the results appear disappointing. It would have been a relief to find that a small investment in a middle school program could overcome the raw messages of our sexualized culture. It would be especially encouraging because of the ever-higher stakes associated with premarital sex today.
But that's not the whole story - either of abstinence education or of the need for intervention in the lives of vulnerable teens. The researchers chose to ignore the abstinence programs most recommended for study, and focused on programs that have since been revised. The scope and the depth of abstinence programs were ignored, and a narrow few chosen for examination. These are not minor points because the stakes in sexual politics today are life and death.
Fueled by multiple sexual partners, the number and variety of sexually transmitted diseases are growing. One virus, HPV, includes strains that cause cervical cancer. The human immuno-deficiency (HIV) virus is lethal and incurable. Latent chlamydia infections are rendering an increasing number of women infertile. Standard antibiotics are proving less effective against gonorrhea. Out-of-wedlock childbearing is rising (more than 36% of all births in the United States according to the National Center for Health Statistics).
Every government official, no less than every parent, would have been thrilled if a 6th grade course of study that warned of these deadly risks were enough to avert them, or reduce their prevalence sharply. It isn't. Still, there is no reason to gloat and call for the end of abstinence, as liberal groups like the Sexuality Information and Educational Council of the United States and Advocates for Youth have done. William Smith of SIECUS crowed that Mathematica's work "should serve as the final verdict on the failure of the abstinence-only industry in this country."
That's a hypocritical point of view when considering the fact that our government has spent 12 dollars on the Planned Parenthood approach for every dollar spent on true abstinence projects as STDs and out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed.
Planned Parenthood would, of course, like to zero-fund its competitors. Abstinent kids don't spend any time in the clinics PP has erected in urban centers across America.
With lives at stake, abstinence programs face the challenge of improving the services they deliver, and fortunately most have done so. A recent HHS-sponsored conference in Baltimore unveiled evidence from more than two dozen studies that such programs produce significant results in adolescent behavioral outcomes. The truth is, programs that are more intensive, that are genuinely comprehensive (that is, they address the need for risk elimination across a range of behaviors, including alcohol, tobacco, drug abuse, and violence prevention), are showing real benefit. Moreover, it is crucial for risk elimination programs that they not "give up" on kids and discount them as forever prone to high-risk behaviors. Older teens need powerful reinforcing messages whether or not they have experimented with drugs, tobacco, or sex. Youth who respond to reinforcement are often the most effective peer educators of all.
One example of intensive programming is Best Friends in Washington, D.C. An independent study of this program was published in the peer-reviewed journal Adolescent and Family Health in 2005. The young women who participate in the program are called "Diamond Girls," and they hail from some of the District's toughest wards. Study author Robert Lerner Ph.D. found that the Diamond Girls "are substantially less likely to smoke, drink, take illegal drugs, and have sex than a comparable sample" of youth in the Centers for Disease Control's surveys.
Lerner goes on to say that the finding that Diamond Girls are 120 times more likely to abstain from sex than their peers "is a result so strong that it is unheard of in practically any empirical research." Programs like Best Friends are succeeding because they aim high and sell no one short. Apparently, this message is getting through more broadly, as macro U.S. statistics have shown steady increases in the proportion of teens practicing abstinence and decreases in teenage pregnancy and abortions.
Congress should take note. It's time to take the sexual revolution head on and to redress the terrific damage it continues to do to boys and girls. It's time to give today's wise and effective abstinence programs more funding, not less.