I must admit, when I first heard
about the recently-released Jemmott
study on the success of an abstinence-only program for young adolescents, I
was tempted to pour over the published evaluation in hopes of finding a way to
discredit the results. Most of us are committed to the supporting evidence-based
programs that work, but we cringe at the notion that such a study could bring federally-funded abstinence-until-marriage curricula back into our schools. It
turns out other trusted allies have already reviewed the study, and luckily they
know about evaluating public health interventions.
For instance, Guttmacher Institute and Advocates for Youth (AFY)
quickly issued advisories describing what the study demonstrated:
"A certain type of abstinence-only program
can help some very young adolescents (average age 12) delay sexual initiation
for up to 24 months." (AFY)
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"[This was] the first abstinence-only intervention to demonstrate [a]
positive impact in a randomized control trial…" (GI).
But they are quick to add some important warnings, morsels that supporters of
comprehensive sexuality education will eagerly consume and
abstinence-until-marriage proponents will refuse to sample.
Even though the study does suggest
that among those who participated (i.e. urban African-American pre-teens), an abstinence
message can work under certain circumstances, it does nothing to support the
type of sex education programs that were funded under the Bush administration.
You know the ones I mean, with behavior change based on moral coercion, misinformation
and tactics that are explicitly designed to scare. In fact, says Guttmacher, the
study "leaves intact the significant body of evidence" demonstrating that such
abstinence-until-marriage programs don’t work.
That hasn’t stopped
abstinence-until-marriage supporters from distorting the results of the study.
Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation managed to get major
media coverage for statements
like this: "This
takes away the main pillar of opposition to abstinence education." Rector again,
"Abstinence Education Effective; Comprehensive
Sex Ed a Big Flop."
at the Abstinence Clearinghouse: "It’s what we’ve known all along.
We have been tracking the numbers all along, and until this particular study
came out, we have really been ignored." Valerie Huber at the National
Abstinence Education Association was interviewed
by the Associated Press and indicated she hoped the study would help bring
federal funding back for abstinence education.
Huber is the most honest among
these conservative voices: she is upfront about wanting the results to affect
public policy. But making decisions based on a skewed interpretation of one
study is as irresponsible as ignoring scientific evidence that contradicts your
beliefs. It’s not science that is the problem, but how ideologues misrepresent
it for their own ends. I was nervous comprehensive sexuality education wouldn’t
look good in the media coverage of this study, and given this kind of spin from
the Right, I had good reason to be. But in the end I didn’t have enough of a
good reason to play dirty. Scientific research is one piece of building sound
public policy, and this study is part of that, but it’s just one piece. As the editorial
that accompanied the Jemmott study cautions:
No public policy should be based on the results
of one study, nor should policy makers selectively
use scientific literature to formulate a policy that meets
We’re still solving the puzzle of
what works to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs; some day we’ll have a
solid picture, but as of now, there are still a lot of missing pieces.