- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

CHICAGO | An experimental abstinence-only sex education program without a moralistic tone can delay teens from having sex, a provocative study has found.

Billed as the first rigorous research to show long-term success with an abstinence-only approach, the study differed from traditional programs that have lost federal and state support in recent years. The classes didn’t preach saving sex until marriage or disparage condom use.

Instead, they involved assignments to help sixth- and seventh-graders see the drawbacks to sexual activity at their age, including having them list the pros and cons themselves. Their cons far outnumbered the pros.

The students, mostly 12-year-olds, were assigned to one of four options: eight hourlong abstinence-only classes, safe-sex classes, classes incorporating both approaches, or classes in general healthy behavior.

Two years later, about one-third of abstinence-only students said they had had sex since the classes had ended versus nearly half — about 49 percent — in each of the other three groups.

The study was released Monday in the February edition of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Critics of abstinence-only programs have long argued that most evidence shows they don’t work. The new study challenges that, but even the authors say the results don’t mean more comprehensive sex education should be ignored.

Advocacy groups favoring traditional abstinence-only programs praised the study and said it shows that the Obama administration’s move away from funding such programs is misguided.

The administration has focused on programs proven to prevent teen pregnancy. However, the study is unlikely to revive enthusiasm for a narrow abstinence approach, and an Archives editorial suggests that it shouldn’t.

“No public policy should be based on the results of one study, nor should policy makers selectively use scientific literature to formulate a policy that meets preconceived ideologies,” says the editorial, by Dr. Frederick Rivara, the journal’s editor, and Dr. Alain Joffe, an associate editor.

The Obama administration’s 2011 budget, released Monday, continues to zero out all funding for abstinence education, as it did with the 2010 budget. Instead, the administration again asks Congress to create a teen-pregnancy prevention program. It is seeking $183 million for “evidence-based models” and “promising programs” to reduce teen pregnancy, the Department of Health and Human Services said Monday.

In fiscal 2009, Congress spent $23 million in an abstinence grant program for states and $95 million in a competitive grant program for community-based programs. However, no money is allocated for those two programs for fiscal 2010, according to the Obama administration’s new budget.

The abstinence-only program was based on social psychology theories about what motivates behavior. It encouraged abstinence as a way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, although the researchers didn’t collect data on those outcomes.

Psychologist John B. Jemmott III, the lead author, called the findings surprising given negative results in previous abstinence-only research. Mr. Jemmott said the single focus may have been better at encouraging abstinence than the other approaches in his study.

“The message was not mixed with any other messages,” said Mr. Jemmott, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has long studied ways to reduce risky behavior among inner-city youngsters. He created the four programs for the study with his researcher-wife, Loretta Jemmott.

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Program, praised the results and said she hopes they revive government interest in abstinence-only sex education.

When asked if the new study might shape the Obama administration’s policy, White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said: “Our approach is to use science and evidence to fund what works, while leaving room for innovation and new thinking. We feel the policy we introduced at the beginning of the administration accomplishes that.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and involved 662 black children in Philadelphia.

Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.

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