Federal

10-Year Study Seen to Undercut Abstinence Emphasis

By Christina A. Samuels — April 24, 2007 4 min read
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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.

Improvements?

“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.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as 10-Year Study Seen to Undercut Abstinence Emphasis

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