10-Year Study Seen to Undercut Abstinence Emphasis

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

A federally mandated study showing that four sexual-abstinence education programs were ineffective in changing the sexual behavior of teenagers is likely to play a prominent role as lawmakers prepare to decide this summer whether to renew funding for abstinence education.

Opponents of the programs say the authoritative study, conducted over 10 years by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., of Princeton, N.J., is a decisive blow to what they regard as an ill-conceived effort at social policy. But some supporters of abstinence programs say they envision that the programs could incorporate the results of the study released this month and survive in a more effective form.

Researchers examined two rural and two urban communities where students received federally financed abstinence education in the elementary and early middle school grades. Half of the more than 2,000 students studied remained abstinent. But, among the students who had sex, the median age of first intercourse, 14 years and 9 months, was about the same, regardless of whether the student had attended an abstinence program. ("Abstinence Programs Don’t Work, Largest Study to Date Concludes," April 18, 2007.)

The two groups also tended to have the same number of sexual partners, and used contraception at the same rate.

‘Bleak’ Future

U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., an opponent of abstinence-only sex education programs and the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, immediately issued a statement saying that the study, released April 13, shows such programs are ineffective and should not be funded by the federal government.

“This data supports what a growing body of public-health evidence has indicated: Abstinence-only programs don’t protect teen health,” he said in the statement. “In short, American taxpayers appear to have paid over $1 billion in federal dollars for programs that have no impact.”

The state block-grant program, known formally as the Title V, Section 510 grants of the 1996 welfare-reform act, began in fiscal 1997 and has been extended for 10 years. It is set to expire this year.

Since 1997, the federal government has given $50 million a year to states through the grant program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the Administration for Children and Families. States match $3 out of every $4 they receive and distribute the money to public and private agencies for programs that teach students that they should remain sexually abstinent until marriage.

Robert E. Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, said in his own statement that the study was flawed because it looked at old programs and the students in the programs received little or no follow-up support of the abstinence message.

Mr. Rector, working with former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a Republican from North Carolina, was one of the original crafters of the federal abstinence-education program.

“This is really a debate about values,” Mr. Rector said in an interview last week. “If it’s a forthright debate about values, then [the state grant program] will do just fine.”

But Mr. Rector said he was pessimistic about the future of the program he helped create, calling the outlook for it “bleak.”

“I think there will be a strong effort to change the programs to be abstinence in name only, and it may very well be successful,” he said.

James Wagoner, the president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington organization that supports comprehensive sex education that includes information about contraception, said he hoped that the report would bring federal abstinence funding to an end.


“There is an extraordinary litany of reports and findings that should have stopped these programs dead in their tracks seven years ago,” Mr. Wagoner said. “The evolution of the programs, far from bad to better, has been from bad to worse.”

But others said that they believed abstinence programs could be improved through the findings of the study.

Abstinence programs have already improved and evolved since the early days of the grant program, said Valerie Huber, the executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, based in Washington. For instance, she said, they focus on consistent reinforcement of their message.

“You can’t give a message once and expect it to stick for the rest of their lives,” she said.

And the Mathematica study noted that students who had positive peer support tended to remain abstinent. That element could possibly be emphasized in future abstinence programs, said Harry Wilson, an associate commissioner for the Family and Youth Services bureau, an agency within the Health and Human Services Department that oversees the programs.

“There’s a whole lot of things that could change as the result of good research,” Mr. Wilson said.

Vol. 26, Issue 34, Pages 5, 12

Published in Print: April 25, 2007, as 10-Year Study Seen to Undercut Abstinence Emphasis
Web Resources
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories





Sponsor Insights

Free Ebook: How to Implement a Coding Program in Schools

Successful Intervention Builds Student Success

Effective Ways to Support Students with Dyslexia

Stop cobbling together your EdTech

Integrate Science and ELA with Informational Text

Can self-efficacy impact growth for ELLs?

Disruptive Tech Integration for Meaningful Learning

Building Community for Social Good

5 Resources on the Power of Interoperability from Unified Edtech

New campaign for UN World Teachers Day

5 Game-Changers in Today’s Digital Learning Platforms

Hiding in Plain Sight - 7 Common Signs of Dyslexia in the Classroom

The research: Reading Benchmark Assessments

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

All Students Are Language Learners: The Imagine Learning Language Advantage™

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

How to Support All Students with Equitable Pathways

2019 K-12 Digital Content Report

3-D Learning & Assessment for K–5 Science

Climate Change, LGBTQ Issues, Politics & Race: Instructional Materials for Teaching Complex Topics

Closing the Science Achievement Gap

Evidence-based Coaching: Key Driver(s) of Scalable Improvement District-Wide

Advancing Literacy with Large Print

Research Sheds New Light on the Reading Brain

Tips for Supporting English Learners Through Personalized Approaches

Response to Intervention Centered on Student Learning

The Nonnegotiable Attributes of Effective Feedback

SEE MORE Insights >