Don’t Blame Abstinence Ed

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The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) recently announced that births to teens in the United States had risen in 2007, for the second consecutive year. The increase, which confirms a troubling reversal of the 14-year decline from 1992 through 2005, led a lot of people to wonder: Could abstinence education be to blame?

Because sex education has long been a flash point in American culture wars, and because Americans boast the highest teen birth rate in the developed world, it’s a good question. The answer is clear: No.

What makes me so sure? After all, since 1996 – when Title V of the welfare reform bill introduced federal matching funds for abstinence-only education – hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent teaching, or trying to teach, kids to abstain from sex before marriage. There’s abundant anecdotal evidence that at least some abstinence education programs are medically inaccurate. No reliable research has confirmed that this approach leads teens to delay sex, much less to wait until after the bride throws her bouquet. On the contrary, the most extensive study – by Mathematica Policy Research, of 2,000 middle school students between 1999 and 2006 in four programs – found no noticeable difference in the age of sexual initiation between youths who received abstinence education and those in a control group.

Still, the NCHS findings won’t do much to settle the sex education wars. On a macro level, we know that teen pregnancy rates declined by over a third between 1991 and 2005. Yet for nine of those years, abstinence education was being used in American schools.

On a micro level, states that took federal money for abstinence-only education have been no more or less likely to see an increase in teen births than were states that rejected funding. California was the only state to reject all of its share of the federal money since 1996. And yes, for years, California’s teen birth rate declined dramatically.

But Georgia eagerly accepted Title V funds in 1996, and its teen birth rates also went down during those years. Then in 2006, Georgia’s teen pregnancy rate went up. But so did California’s rate, even though abstinence education was still a state no-no.

Trends in other states also fail to teach an obvious sex education lesson. On the one hand, abstinence-friendly states like Mississippi, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Ohio and Wisconsin all saw teen birth rates go up after 2005. Yet Maine, which rejected federal funds in 2005, also saw teen births increase after that. Texas might be the most abstinence-friendly state in the union: A whopping 94 percent of school districts in the Lone Star State teach abstinence only, according to a study by Texas State University. Yet its rates of teen pregnancy, while always higher than many other states, have remained stable during the recent national uptick.

In fact, the most powerful conclusion to draw from the new findings is that both abstinence promoters and opponents have wildly overstated their cases. In a 2009 evaluation, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy lists 30 successful sex education programs. The highly varied group includes “Making a Difference!” – an abstinence program not studied by Mathematica – and a community service program that didn’t include any discussion of sex at all.

Some programs resulted in delayed sexual initiation, some in increased condom use, and some in decreased pregnancy, but most of the improvements were temporary – six months or less. Some of the most impressive results came from a comprehensive sex education program in Seattle, and even in that case, 38 percent of the girls had gotten pregnant by age 21. That’s better than the 56 percent in a control group, but hardly the sort of vaccine that policymakers are looking for.

We shouldn’t be surprised to hear sobering news about sex education. Our schools have not been especially successful at teaching, say, algebra; why would we expect them to be any better at teaching something so emotionally and socially complex as sex? In surveys, teens repeatedly cite parents as by far the most powerful influence on their thinking about sex, well ahead of friends or the media. Sex education has less impact on their decision-making than almost any other factor cited.

The truth is that showing kids scary slides of STD lesions or how to put condoms on bananas will do little to accomplish what should be our major policy goal: to reverse the breakdown of the family. At the same time the NCHS revealed the rise in teen pregnancy, it announced that out-of-wedlock birthrates had reached a record 40 percent. The large majority of those births were to women in their early 20s. Even among teens, most births are to 18- and 19-year-olds.

Because the average age of sexual initiation is 17, it’s a fair guess that these women knew how to use birth control. What they evidently did not know (or believe) is that having a baby when you are young and unmarried is bad for you, bad for your baby, bad for your community and bad for the country as a whole. That’s the message that all sex educators – indeed all of us – need to deliver.