So last week’s news that teenage birthrates inched upward late in the Bush era, after 15 years of steady decline, was greeted with a grim sort of satisfaction. Bloggers pounced; activists claimed vindication. On CBS News, Katie Couric used the occasion to lecture viewers about the perils of telling kids only about abstinence, and ignoring contraception. The new numbers, declared the president of Planned Parenthood, make it “crystal clear that abstinence-only sex education for teenagers does not work.”
In reality, the numbers show no such thing. Abstinence financing increased under Bush, but the federal government has been funneling money to pro-chastity initiatives since early in Bill Clinton’s presidency. If you blame abstinence programs for a year’s worth of bad news, you’d also have to give them credit for more than a decade’s worth of progress.
More likely, neither blame nor credit is appropriate. The evidence suggests that many abstinence-only programs have little impact on teenage sexual behavior, just as their critics long insisted. But most sex education programs of any kind have an ambiguous effect, at best, on whether and how teens have sex. The abstinence-based courses that social conservatives champion produce unimpressive results — but so do the contraceptive-oriented programs that liberals tend to favor.
. . .
If the federal government wants to invest in the fight against teenage pregnancy, the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached. (And yes, this goes for the dollars that currently flow to Planned Parenthood as well as the money that supports abstinence programs.) Don’t try to encourage Berkeley values in Alabama, or vice versa.
America’s competing visions of sexuality — permissive and traditional, naturalist and sacralist — have been in conflict since the 1960s. They’ll probably be in conflict for generations yet to come.
As far as I know, the only independent longitudinal study comparing abstinence-only education to comprehensive sex education was carried out by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. The study found no statistically significant differences between students in abstinence-only programs and comprehensive sex education programs. (The final report can be read here.)
The sample groups were randomly assigned. In addition, the researchers used a data-analytic approach (looking at regression-adjusted means) to statistically control for various "individual demographic and background characteristics."
The study's conclusion:
Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age. Contrary to concerns raised by some critics of the Title V, Section 510 abstinence funding, however, program group youth were no more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex thancontrol group youth. [My emphasis]I'm not opposed to comprehensive sex education -- if nothing else, I think kids should be exposed to information -- but I think Ross makes an excellent point. There doesn't seem to be any sensible reason to force more socially conservative communities to teach their children about contraception.
On this issue, at least, we should stay out of each other's backyards.
Update: A coworker directed me to this recently-published study, which was highlighted in the Washington Post today. The findings suggest that some carefully-crafted abstinence-only programs may, in fact, be significantly more effective than certain comprehensive sex education programs.
I think this only bolsters Ross's point. Different communities should be able to try different things.
Update II: Ross responds to this post by Hanna Rosin, and offers his views on the study that was featured in the Washington Post:
Does this prove that abstinence-based education always lowers teen sexual activity? No — it proves that one abstinence program designed in a particular way, implemented by a particular group of teachers, and aimed at a particular age group in a particularly area was considerably more effective than a contraception-based approach. And that’s all that any controlled experiment is likely to prove. The data on this question are necessarily deeply particular, and partisans on both sides will probably always be able to find studies that “prove” the superiority of their preferred approach. (Here’s a recent entry for the pro-comprehensive sex ed side, for instance.) Which suggests, to my mind, the virtues of both widespread experimentation and local control, rather than an inevitably polarizing quest for a one-size-fits-all solution.
. . .
The idea that only a federally-mandated health curriculum can save America’s teens from sexual ignorance strikes me as a vast overstatement of the federal government’s power. And the dream of constructing a program that’s somehow perfectly “neutral” on such a deeply fraught, inherently values-laden subject seems like a recipe for endless controversy, and little real progress.