Published: June 8, 2007

Abstinence Education in State Laws

This week’s Stat of the Week focuses on abstinence education in schools. The central message to students in abstinence education is to delay having sex until marriage. The controversy around abstinence education lies in how forcefully the message is delivered and what other information does or does not accompany it.

Definition of Abstinence Education

• Teaches the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity as its exclusive purpose

• Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the expected standard outside marriage for all school-age children

• Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems

• Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity

• Teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects

• Teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society

• Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances

• Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

The federal government has been promoting abstinence education through two grant programs. Non-profit or faith-based organizations may apply for funding though the Community-Based Abstinence Education program, and states may access funding through Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act. Funding for the Community-Based Abstinence Education program has increased from $55 million in 2002 to $113 million in 2006, while funding for the Title V program has been level at $50 million a year since its inception in 1997. Both programs require that grantees teach according to the federal definition of abstinence education. Some states participating in the Title V grant program have decided to opt-out, saying the federal definition is too strict.

The Education Commission of the States (ECS) compiled information in February 2007 on state sex education laws, and found that 30 states have abstinence education provisions. A closer analysis of the data by the EPE Research Center revealed that 13 of those states stress abstinence, 10 of those states promote abstinence, and seven of those states cover abstinence in the curriculum but also require or permit school districts to teach information about other topics, such as contraception. The map below shows the states that ECS found to have abstinence provisions and the EPE Research Center categorization of those provisions by type of abstinence program.

Type of Abstinence Education Provision in State Laws

Recent research suggests that abstinence-focused sex education may not work. An evaluation of Title V abstinence education programs by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. found that students who participated were not less likely to have sex than those who did not participate Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader. Furthermore, there was no evidence that students receiving abstinence education delayed having sex. While some critics of abstinence education believe that it actually promotes risky sexual behavior, the Mathematica study did not support that assumption either. There was no difference between students in the program and students in the control group in terms of engagement in unprotected sex and numbers of sexual partners.

In addition to evidence suggesting that abstinence education may be ineffective, there is also some indication that the public does not support or believe in such programming. A public opinion poll conducted in 2005-06 and published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that 82 percent of a randomly selected nationally representative sample of U.S. adults aged 18 to 83 years (N = 1096) said they supported a more comprehensive policy referred to as “abstinence plus.” Advocates of abstinence plus believe that students should be taught abstinence in addition to other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Further evidence of public opinion on this topic can be found in the recent results of an online poll on edweek.org, where readers were asked how they feel about the following statement: “Sexual-abstinence education programs are not effective.” Nearly three-quarters of the 399 respondents said they agreed with that statement, and of those agreeing, more than two-thirds said they strongly” agreed.

The EPE Research Center analysis categorized state abstinence provisions identified by ECS, indicating whether abstinence
is (a) stressed (b) promoted, or (c) covered. The definitions of these categories, along with one example of each, can be found below:

Stressed: Abstinence provision in state law contains strong language, regarding abstinence as the fundamental teaching standard, similar to the federal definition of abstinence education.
Example: Louisiana
The major emphasis of any sex education instruction offered in the public schools must be to encourage abstinence between unmarried persons, and any instruction must:
§ Emphasize abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
§ Emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity is a way to avoid unwanted pregnancy, STDs—including AIDS—and other associated health problems
§ Emphasize each student has the power to control personal behavior and to encourage students to base action on reasoning, self-esteem and respect for others.

LA. REV. CODE ANN. § 17:281

Promoted: Abstinence education is promoted, but the provision is not as strongly stated as those states in which it is stressed.
Example: Colorado
Any curriculum and materials developed and used in teaching sexuality and human reproduction must include values and responsibility and will give primary emphasis to abstinence by school-aged children.
COLO. REV. STAT. § 22-25-104

Covered: Abstinence is mentioned as a topic to be addressed, but the provision also includes language to suggest sex education curriculum should include information on other topics like contraception or medically accurate means of protection.
Example: Oregon
Course instruction shall … promote abstinence for school-age youth and mutually monogamous relationships with an uninfected partner for adults as the safest and most responsible sexual behavior. However, abstinence shall not be taught to the exclusion of other material and instruction on contraceptive and disease reduction measures; human sexuality education courses must acknowledge the value of abstinence while not devaluing or ignoring those young people who have had or are having sexual intercourse.
OR. REV. STAT. § 336.455

For Education Week coverage on abstinence education, see:
("GAO Opinion Renews Debate on Abstinence-Only Programs," Nov. 1, 2006.)
("Abstinence Programs Lack Factual Reviews, GAO Study Concludes," Nov. 29, 2006.)
("States Turn Down Abstinence-Only Grants," March 28, 2007.)
("Abstinence Program Targeted for Cuts," May 23, 2007.)

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