Abstinence Ed’s Nightmare

Print More

“I am really pissed off!”

That’s Althea McMillan, who runs an abstinence-only education program in Miami, virtually shouting back at a wave of attacks on the abstinence movement by comprehensive sex ed proponents, politicians and (ahem) the media.

Igniting McMillan’s temper is what might be the most troubling news ever for abstinence-only supporters: the release last month of the first long-term, scientific study of abstinence-only programs, which showed that they had virtually no impact on youths’ sexual behavior.

McMillan: “The finding is incorrect! It’s not true!”

“Youth in the [abstinence only] program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex,” said the federally funded study, which both sides have been anxiously awaiting to help bolster their cases.

Abstinence-only foes immediately launched a sort of “I told you so” campaign, citing the findings to push for more comprehensive sex ed funding, while abstinence supporters mounted a counteroffensive by belittling the study as invalid.

The report could not have come at a more sensitive time: After years of growth under the Bush administration, government-funded abstinence-only efforts are facing a severe backlash, fueled in part by Democratic election victories last November. At least a dozen states have said they will reject federal abstinence education funds under the Title V State Abstinence Education program, Congress is considering a bill to mandate more comprehensive sex ed, and the Bush administration’s main point man for abstinence education, Wade Horn, resigned last month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It’s no surprise that abstinence supporters recently launched a new national association to aggressively promote their cause.

“With the political change, there is a strong voice that’s giving opposition” to abstinence-only education, notes Lois Theis, vice president of Abstinence Education Inc., a service provider in Wichita, Kan.

High-Stakes Study

The new study is particularly hot because it does what no other study has done: It measures the impact of abstinence-only education over a long period of time, using randomly selected program participants and a control group. Congress mandated the study in 1997, a year after Title V’s inclusion in the Clinton administration’s welfare reform bill raised the funding and visibility of abstinence programs. Since 1998, the federal government has offered $50 million annually in abstinence-only funding to each state, to be matched with state funds at a rate of 75 percent.

President Bush significantly upped the funding for abstinence-only education through the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program, which was created in 2000 to make grants to organizations. Funding for CBAE began at $20 million in fiscal 2001, but the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress raised it to $115 million by fiscal 2006. The president has proposed $137 million for fiscal 2008.

That money has brought louder calls for evaluations of abstinence-only education’s effectiveness. “As we’ve been talking to some of the folks that are administering the program” on the federal level, “they’ve felt some pressure to show that programs are working,” says Barbara Singer, executive director of CareNet pregnancy services of DuPage, Ill.

Therein lies proof that the study and the media questions about abstinence are “absolutely biased,” says McMillan, executive director of Abstinence Between Strong Teens, a nonprofit that delivers abstinence education in Miami. It was only after the federal government increased its funding for abstinence, she says, “that you began to hear things about abstinence not working. … The other side knew we were about to begin to get some of their funds.”

So a lot was riding on the outcome of this study.

The evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research followed 2,057 youths in four school-based abstinence education programs, primarily for grades five through eight (one program included youth in grades three through eight): My Choice, My Future, in Powhatan, Va.; ReCapturing the Vision, in Miami; Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, in Milwaukee; and Teens in Control, in Clarksdale, Miss.

Among the key findings:

• Youth in abstinence education programs were no more likely than those in control groups to have abstained from sexual intercourse.

• Youth in both groups who had sexual intercourse did so at the same mean age (14.9 years) and had about the same number of partners.

• Sexually active youth in both groups were equally likely to have used protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The F Word

For abstinence-only foes, the study provided powerful validation of what they’ve been saying for years. “From a policy point of view, the Mathematica report was a slam dunk. The programs don’t work,” says James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates comprehensive sex education.

Days after the study’s release, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call – widely read by members of Congress and their staffs – featured a full-page advertisement featuring a “government report card” giving abstinence-only programs an “F.” The headline: “Congressionally-mandated Study: Abstinence-Only Doesn’t Work.”

The ad was sponsored by Advocates for Youth, which also issued a memo to news organizations that declared, “The abstinence-only-until-marriage industry must be getting desperate!”

Even the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which has refrained from attacking abstinence-only education, issued a statement from Executive Director Sarah Brown summarizing the findings of “this carefully conducted evaluation,” and urging more dedication to comprehensive sex education approaches.

“The vast majority of the public does not see abstinence and contraception as an either/or proposition – they want teens to be informed of both.”

Fighting Back

Abstinence education providers around the country – many of whom have made it their life’s calling – felt the sting from the attacks and the media coverage of the study.

“I am livid about the things I’m hearing that’s coming from some of these folks!” says McMillan of Abstinence Between Strong Teens in Miami. “The finding is incorrect! It’s not true!”

She and other abstinence supporters say the study means nothing because it looked at only four programs, because the programs did not extend into high school and because the study began in the late 1990s, when the abstinence programs were young and evolving.

“This study began when [the programs] were still in their infancy,” Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said in a statement issued by the association. “The field of abstinence has significantly grown and evolved since that time, and the results demonstrated in the Mathematica study are not representative of the abstinence education community as a whole.”

That objection raises the thorny “moving target” dilemma of evaluating programs: When an evaluation shows poor results, its supporters say the program has changed so much that the evaluation is irrelevant. The argument might have some validity, but it can also be a dodge: witness the DARE anti-drug abuse program, which waved off critical evaluations for years.

One shortcoming of the studied programs that everyone does agree on is that they did not continue teaching the youths through high school, which abstinence programs routinely attempt now and which the report recommends.

“What they proved was something we knew already,” says Theis of Abstinence Education in Wichita. “You need reinforcement through those high school years, in order to maintain a surface awareness of the health advantages of refraining” from sexual intercourse.

Theis says her group, for example, runs a peer mentoring program through which college students work with high schoolers, and high schoolers give presentations to middle schoolers.

Abstinence providers also say that numerous studies have shown abstinence programs to be effective. However, almost all of those studies have measured attitudes and intentions – rather than the much more difficult task of measuring behaviors – and some of them consisted of surveys conducted by the providers themselves.

Federal statistics do show a decline in rates of intercourse and pregnancy among teens starting in the 1990s; abstinence supporters say that at least some of that decline should be credited to the increased promotion of abstinence.

What’s Next

With Democrats having won control of Congress last fall, as well as more governorships, look for some pitched legislative and public relations battles.

In recent months, abstinence supporters established the National Abstinence Education Association, headed by Huber, the former abstinence coordinator for the Ohio Department of Health.

The association’s goals, according to its website, include: lobbying “to sustain and expand state and federal funding,” “rebranding the abstinence message to provide positive representation in the public square,” and “providing effective talking points and general commentary [to] the abstinence community.”

The association has hired the Creative Response Concepts public relations firm – the firm behind the “swift boat” advertisements that helped to defeat Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

Huber could not be reached in time to comment.

Comprehensive sex ed advocates are pushing a bill in Congress, the Responsible Education About Life Act, which would provide more federal money to teach about abstinence and contraception. Wagoner at Advocates for Youth says the bill poses no threat to abstinence programs.

“Not only does [the bill] include abstinence education, it says the programs have to emphasize it, while not ignoring the needs of sexually active youth,” he says.

In Miami, McMillan remains defiant. “I started in 1992, when there was no money” being provided for abstinence education, she says.

She’ll continue, she says, adding, “I don’t give a darn if they take every penny I have.”

Contact: National Abstinence Education Association (202) 248-5420, http://www.abstinenceassociation.org; Advocates for Youth (202) 419-3420, http://www.advocatesforyouth.org.