Research

Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy

University of Washington, Seattle

Available at http://www.planetwire.org/files.fcgi/7689_Ab_Only_Ed_Kohler_.pdf

Yet another study has confirmed that abstinence-only programs have a minimal effect on risky sexual behaviors, while comprehensive sex education programs reduce the risk for teen pregnancy without increasing the likelihood that teens will engage in sexual activity.

In short, “it is not harmful to teach teens about birth control in addition to abstinence,” lead researcher Pamela Kohler, a program manager at the University of Washington, said in a news release about the study.

The study appeared in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health – only a few weeks after President Bush submitted a fiscal 2009 budget that includes $204 million in funding for programs that teach only abstinence until marriage.

The study is purportedly the first to compare abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education programs at a general population level – rather than with specific subgroups, such as kids in programs at certain middle schools. It draws data from Cycle 6 of the National Survey of Family Growth, a federal survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. The survey includes responses from 12,571 people, ages 15 to 44. Cycle 6 data were gathered in 2002 and 2003.

For this study, the sample was narrowed to include only responses from 1,719 never-married heterosexual youths, ages 15 to 19, who reported no vaginal intercourse before receiving formal sex education. The cohort was 47 percent female and the median age was 17. More than three-quarters of respondents were white; 14 percent were black. About half lived in households earning less than $40,000 annually. Fifty-three percent lived in a central city, and 41 percent reported that their families were not intact.

Nine percent reported they had received no sex education of any kind. Twenty-four percent reported receiving abstinence-only education, and 67 percent reported receiving comprehensive sex ed that included information about contraception as well as abstinence.

The study found that youth who received no formal sex ed of any kind tended to be black, from poor and “non-intact” (that is, broken) families, and from rural areas. Respondents who reported receiving abstinence-only education were typically younger, and from low- to moderate- income intact families. Those who received comprehensive sex ed tended to be older, white, from higher-income families and from more urban areas.

The study examined three distinct outcomes: initiation of sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and diagnosis of a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

Nearly half of the teens reported that they had engaged in vaginal intercourse. The likelihood of having had intercourse was considerably higher among youths who were older, black, from lower-income households, who lived in metropolitan suburbs or whose biological families were not intact.

After adjusting for those variables, the researchers found that abstinence-only education was not significantly associated with having reported vaginal intercourse, and that comprehensive sex education was marginally associated with reduced reports of intercourse.

As for teen pregnancy, the rates were higher among those who were older, black, poor, living in metropolitan suburbs or from broken families. But after researchers made statistical adjustments for those variables, they found that teens who received comprehensive sex ed were 60 percent less likely to report a teen pregnancy than were teens who had received no sex ed. There was no significant difference in reported teen pregnancies between teens who received abstinence-only sex education and those who received no sex education.

Contrary to a recent and highly publicized report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that one in four girls in the United States is infected with an STD, data from the National Survey of Family Growth indicate that just over 3 percent of the teen cohort reported having been diagnosed with an STD prior to the survey. As with sexual activity and pregnancy, the likelihood of having been diagnosed with an STD was higher among youth who were older, black or from broken families. However, adjustments for those factors showed that neither abstinence-only nor comprehensive sex ed was significantly associated with increased risk for an STD as compared with youth who received no sex ed.

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