Experts duel over abstinence programs

By SUSAN HELEN MORAN, for United Press International   |   April 24, 2002 at 11:58 AM
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WASHINGTON, April 23 (UPI) -- Programs that promote sexual abstinence reduce sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock childbearing and other consequences of sex among teenagers, according to a study published the conservative Heritage Foundation. Analysts at other think tanks, however, question the study's claims.

The study, published April 5, advocates increasing Federal funding of such programs, many of which already exist around the country.

In the report, "The Effectiveness of abstinence education programs in reducing sexual activity among youth," Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the think tank, outlines his reasoning in support of abstinence-only programs and describes 10 such programs that researchers have found effective.

Rector, one of the main architects of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, wrote this report in part to support President George W. Bush's call to increase Federal funding for abstinence-only programs outlined in Title V of the Social Security code, to $135 million this year, from $102 million last year.

Rector writes that these programs will not only reduce sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy among teens, but will also "provide the foundation for personal responsibility and enduring marital commitment."

"Therefore, " he writes, "they are vitally important to ... increasing adult happiness over the long term."

The report describes a National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, which found that "abstinence-pledge" programs reduced sexual activity among teens in grades seven through 12. He also describes the "Not Me, Not Now" program, which targeted 9- to 14-year olds in Monroe County, N.Y., and resulted in a drop in sexual activity among that age group, from 46.6 percent nationwide to 31.6 percent within the test county.

"The pregnancy rate for girls aged 15 through 17 in Monroe County fell by a statistically significant amount, from 63.4 pregnancies per 1,000 girls to 49.5 pregnancies per 1,000," Rector writes.

According to the study, similarly impressive results were shown by the Operation Keepsake program for 12- and 13-year olds in Cleveland; the Abstinence by Choice program for seventh, eighth, and ninth grade students in Little Rock, Ark.; and by six other abstinence-only programs.

Not all agree with that assessment, however.

Abstinence-only education programs have not been adequately evaluated, and so far their effectiveness has not been proven, says Isabel V. Sawhill, senior fellow in Economic Studies and co-director of the Welfare Reform and Beyond program at the centrist Brookings Institution.

"There is not enough empirical data at the moment, but there are important studies under way," says Marvin Eisen, principal research associate at the Population Studies Center at the liberal Urban Institute.

The Mathematica Institute for Public Policy Research and the University of Pennsylvania are conducting a study for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will measure the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs. Sawhill, Eisen, and others are awaiting the results.

Researchers from all political persuasions, both Democrats and Republicans, reportedly make up that study's technical advisory group, which indicates that the results and recommendations will not be biased, says one analyst.

Although Rector, who did not respond to phone calls asking him for comments for this report, writes that future studies such as Mathematica's will further support the effectiveness of abstinence-only education programs, Sawhill suspects that future studies will show some abstinence-only programs to be effective and some not.

Many of Rector's critics agree that sexual abstinence among teens would be an ideal solution to the dire consequences of STDs, teen pregnancy and teen childbirth and the resulting poverty, but they also say the abstinence-only solution is not practical.

"Teens today are bombarded with sex images [from] Britney Spears and her belly button on MTV to Dawson's Creek," explains Anne Kim, director of the Work, Family and Community Project at the liberal Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. "We certainly want kids to wait as long as possible. But if you tell kids not to do something and do not tell them why, then they are going to go out and do it."

She says that research indicates that abstinence-plus programs, which promote abstinence along with other alternatives if teens choose to have sex, are effective.

Sawhill notes that research shows that a number of programs that are effective in preventing teen pregnancies encourage abstinence, but that they also teach about birth control. She also cites the effectiveness of youth-development programs such as after-school mentoring or community service.

Rector, however, asserts that abstinence-plus programs give merely a "condescending nod" to the abstinence-only message. Advocates disagree.

For one thing, no one knows exactly what is being taught in all the various abstinence-plus or abstinence-only programs across the country.

"There is very little information [on the national level] about what is actually happening in the schools," says Tina Hoff, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a private healthcare philanthropy and think tank based in Menlo Park, Calif. "Sex education is still state-driven policy. There is tremendous variability across states."

Virginia, for example, has no statewide policy that sex education must be taught in schools; however, the state does require public schools that choose to teach sex education to "stress or cover abstinence and ... cover contraception."

In comparison, North Carolina mandates that sex education must be taught and that abstinence must be part of the class, but does not mention contraception, she says.

Evidence, however, does show that comprehensive abstinence-plus programs can be effective in reducing teen pregnancy, says Hoff. As a result, Kaiser is working with MTV on a yearlong campaign called "Fight for Your Rights: Protecting Yourself." It will include special programming, targeted public service messages, grassroots events, and an extensive resources and referral service, according to Kaiser Family Foundation's Web site.

"There was no evidence that these programs promoted or caused more teens to become sexually active or at a younger age," Hoff says, contradicting a point that Rector made in his report.

Hoff bases her opinions, in part, on two studies: "Emerging Answers," conducted for ETR Associates for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy; and a Columbia University study by Peter Burmnan and Hanna Bruckner sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Other think tank analysts and members of Congress warn that abstinence-only programs can damage teens.

"Sometimes abstinence education ... can itself be harmful to kids," said Marjorie Heins, author of the book "Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth," at a recent forum at the libertarian Cato Foundation. "The Welfare Reform Act funds sex education programs only if they contain an ideological agenda, including the proposition that any sex activity outside marriage is physically and psychologically harmful, and no information about contraceptives or safe sex except false or misleading information, such as [saying that] condoms don't work," she says.

"This is an example of how censorship in the name of protecting kids can be harmful to them," she says.

"We can no longer ignore the reality that thousands of young people are sexually active, putting them at risk for unwanted pregnancy, STDs including AIDS," wrote Barbara Lee, D-Calif., James Greenwood, R-Pa., and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., in a joint letter to President Bush on Jan. 31.

Lee, Greenwood, and Woolsey sent the letter to voice their strong concern about Bush's proposal for increased funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the administration's fiscal year 2003 budget. They oppose federal funding for abstinence-only education, and they recently introduced a bill that would provide $100 million a year for comprehensive sex education programs that teach both abstinence and contraception.

"Allowing our young people to be ignorant in the times of HIV/AIDS is a matter of life and death," said Lee. "An average of two young people in the U.S. are infected with HIV every hour of every day. Denying our sons and daughters the information they need to protect their health and their lives is not only naive and misguided, but irresponsible and extremely dangerous."

"Abstinence-only education is a short-sighted approach that won't work," says Woolsey.

"We can't risk our children's future by not fully educating them about their options. It is irresponsible to withhold information that could protect them from dangerous diseases and unwanted pregnancy. I will fight to expand abstinence-only education funding to include other birth control methods," he says.

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