Review Finds No Evidence to Support Funding of Abstinence-Only Programs

Brady Swenson

A recently released review of abstinence-only programs confirms that they do not help teens delay initiation of sex, and there is no scientific evidence to warrant their widespread use.

The latest edition of the journal Sexuality Research & Social Policy is dedicated to a review of federally funded abstinence-only programs.  One of the articles (PDF) compares the effectiveness of comprehensive sexuality education curriculum with that of abstinence-only curricula that have received $1.5 billion in federal funding during the Bush administration.  The extensive review found that abstinence-only programs do not help teens delay initiation of sex, and there is no scientific evidence to warrant their widespread use.  From the abstract (emphasis mine):

In an effort to reduce unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (STD) in adolescents, both abstinence and comprehensive sex and STD/HIV education programs have been proffered. Based on specified criteria, the author searched for and reviewed 56 studies that assessed the mpact of such curricula (8 that evaluated 9 abstinence programs and 48 that evaluated comprehensive programs) on adolescents’ sexual behavior. Study results indicated that most abstinence programs did not delay initiation of sex and only 3 of 9 had any significant positive effects on any sexual behavior. In contrast, about two thirds of comprehensive programs showed strong evidence that they positively affected young people’s sexual behavior, including both delaying initiation of sex and increasing condom and contraceptive use among important groups of youth. Based on this review, abstinence programs have little evidence to warrant their widespread replication; conversely, strong evidence suggests that some comprehensive programs should be disseminated widely.

Also in this special edition of Sexuality Research & Social Policy, as summarized by Guttmacher:

  • Key critiques of abstinence-only programs
    Promotion of abstinence until marriage is directly at odds with
    long-term demographic trends, including earlier age at first sex and
    later age at first marriage, according to “Abstinence-Only Policies and Programs: An Overview (PDF),”
    by Kantor and colleagues. Abstinence-only programs also coincided with
    increasing restrictions on teachers’ ability to teach and with fewer
    young people receiving comprehensive sexuality education.

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  • Abstinence-only programs violate key human rights principles
    Abstinence-only programs’ silence or misinformation about condom
    effectiveness violates young people’s right to information and to the
    means with which to protect their health, according to “Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs and Their Impact on Adolescent Human Rights (PDF),”
    by Alice M. Miller and Rebecca A. Schleifer. The authors examine both
    Texas and Uganda in their demonstration of the ways that human rights
    approaches can help to illustrate limitations on programs that restrict
    access to information.

  • What motivated states to reject abstinence-only funding?
    States that refused to accept federal funding under the rigid Title V
    abstinence-only program often had concerns about its efficacy and
    accuracy, as well as progressive governments and strong advocates for
    comprehensive sexuality education, according to “State Refusal of Federal Funding for Abstinence-Only Programs (PDF),”
    by Marissa Raymond and colleagues. The authors suggest that policy
    change can be achieved by building coalitions supporting comprehensive
    sexuality education and challenging the medical accuracy and efficacy
    of abstinence-only education.

Be sure to check out our Reality Check video on comprehensive sex education vs. abstinence-only.  Watch and share!

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