Study: Abstinence education works

Can a message of abstinence delay teens from having sex? Yes, as long as it’s not accompanied by a moralistic tone, a new study says. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the study focused on 662 black children in Philadelphia.

The students were assigned to one of four options: eight hour-long abstinence-only classes; safe-sex classes; classes incorporating both approaches; or classes in general healthy behavior. Results for the first three classes were compared with the group that had only the general health classes. That was the “control group” the study used for comparison.

Two years later, a third of the kids in the abstinence-only classes had had sex, compared with half the kids in the general health class.

Lyla Alphonse, a Boston Globe writer, isn’t buying it.

For one thing, the students in this study supporting abstinence-only education are young. Really young: tweens — 11- and 12-year-olds, maybe 13, max — whose sexual activity was surveyed again just two years later, when they were 13 or 14 years old. But the stats on teen pregnancy are for kids aged 15 to 19 — a completely different age group. Also, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which documented the rise in teen pregnancies, African-American teen pregnancies increased less than other groups, so an abstinence-only study that focused only on urban African-American middle-school students may not be easily applied to teenagers in general.

On MPR’s Midmorning, Kerri Miller looked at the question of teen pregnancy and abstinence.

Sarah Brown, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told Miller the issue should be considered an economic one in schools. “I don’t think we’ve really communicated to teens that this issue of child bearing is about avoid poverty and having a job, which is getting harder in this economy all the time,” she said. “We know that children need adult parents and we also know when children have babies as teens, they’re often single and remain single.”

“It immediately devolves into a conversation about sex,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s the place to start.”

  • Another way to characterize the “abstinence-only” classes: Sex-education classes that emphasize abstinence instead of safe sex for young people. It doesn’t sound like the course in the study is what the “abstinence-only” movement is pushing.

  • J Smith

    “Works” depends on what the ultimate goal is. Avoiding/eliminating teen pregnancies has lots of valid advantages (like, avoiding poverty, being able to get a job, finishing high school and college unencumbered by a child to support, etc. etc.). Avoiding/eliminating teen sex as a whole seems to go against the face of nature and the only advantage would be a “moral” one if you believe sex should wait until a given point in the future. But teen sex without producing children isn’t necessarily good or bad. It just is.