- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

BALTIMORE — Federal officials yesterday encouraged hundreds of abstinence educators to persevere, despite public controversy and difficulties in designing and evaluating programs on teenage sex.

Abstinence education is an “emerging field of behavioral intervention,” said Dr. Alma Golden, deputy assistant secretary for population affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which held the first national conference on evaluating abstinence education.

There’s a lot to be learned about “what works and what doesn’t work,” she said.

Government promotion of premarital sexual abstinence for youth is consistent with other healthy messages that stress the importance of marriages and fathers, said child psychologist Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at HHS.

“The question is not whether abstinence works,” he said. “The question before us, in terms of evaluation and research, is what are the best strategies to help young people make that choice.”

Under the Bush administration, the funding for abstinence programs has doubled, to about $167 million a year.

Groups such as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which prefer sex education that teaches contraception and abstinence, say abstinence-only programs are ineffective and that government funding for them is wasteful.

Yesterday morning, as White House domestic policy adviser Claude Allen was preparing to address the conference, more than a dozen AIDS activists crowded to the podium, saying, “Abstinence doesn’t work” and “Safe sex now.” The activists were escorted out as the audience chanted back, “Abstinence works every time.”

Mr. Allen urged abstinence educators to press home the message that parents should be proactive in teaching their children about sex and love. Teens have many influences, he said, “but parents top them all.”

At yesterday’s sessions, researchers reviewed the challenges of designing scientific evaluations of abstinence — or any sex education — program with teens. It is difficult to question children and teens on sensitive subjects such as sex, they said. It also is difficult to design evaluations that can produce clear, clean and replicable results.

“We need consistent practices” and guidelines, said Western Kentucky University scholar Stephen Nagy.

In June, the first report from a study of federally funded abstinence programs found that teens in abstinence programs were more likely than peers to embrace the idea of chastity and take virginity pledges. However, more research is needed to see whether the teens do change their behavior, said researchers Christopher Trenholm of Mathematica Policy Research Inc. and Rebecca A. Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania.

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