Friday, December 10, 2004

The nation’s top medical group this week updated its sex-education policy to oppose federal funding of any unproven programs, but abstinence educators still believe it targets only them.

“The whole thing has to do with evidence. It’s really a scientific issue,” said Dr. J. Edward Hill, president-elect of the American Medical Association (AMA).

Abstinence educators say there is evidence the teaching approach works.

“The new AMA policy states that the AMA will only support programs that have proven effective,” said Libby Gray, director of Project Reality, an abstinence education organization in Glenview, Ill.

“If this is the case, they should review the studies that are readily available that show that abstinence education reduces teen sexual activity and stop supporting comprehensive sex-education programs that have not been shown to be effective,” she said.

The AMA policy change comes on the heels of a study widely reported from Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, that said 11 out of 13 federally funded abstinence education programs contained medical or scientific errors or distortions.

The National Abstinence Clearinghouse and other abstinence supporters protested Mr. Waxman’s findings, saying they were politically motivated.

However, supporters of comprehensive sex education said the Waxman study was just the latest to conclude that abstinence education rarely or never works.

The Bush administration is a staunch supporter of abstinence education, and the Republican-led Congress earmarked $170 million, including $30 million in new funds, for abstinence education in its 2005 spending bill.

Previous AMA policy opposed abstinence-only education, saying it could not support it “unless research showed that it was superior in preventing negative outcomes,” Dr. Hill said yesterday .

The new AMA policy doesn’t address abstinence-only education per se. Instead, the group says it supports “comprehensive sex-education programs that stress the importance of abstinence … and also teach about contraceptive choices and safer sex.”

“That’s the big difference — the ‘and also’ part,” said Dr. Hill, who is a family physician in Tupelo, Miss.

The new policy also opposes “federal funding of community-based programs that do not show evidence-based results.”

That means “if an abstinence-only program is proven to work, we’re extremely supportive of it, and would be supportive of federal funding for programs that work. But we want them to show the evidence that they work,” Dr. Hill said.

“There are several studies which show that abstinence education is effective,” especially in reducing teen pregnancy and abortion rates, said Dr. Hal Wallis, a Texas doctor who is on the medical council of the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based abstinence clearinghouse.

Federally funded studies have shown that virginity pledges delay having sex and abstinence education is responsible for more than half of the decline in teen births, he said.

“Abstinence education is the first mechanism that has actually made a positive impact on the devastation caused by the errant sexual education programs of the 1970s and 1980s,” said Dr. Eric Keroack, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Boston. “Why would we stop it?”


New federal data on teen sexual activity show declines among all teen boys and high school-age girls.

Percent of unmarried teens, ages 15 to 17, who have never had sexual intercourse.


1988: 63

1995: 62

2002: 70


1988: 50

1995: 57

2002: 69

Percent of unmarried teens, ages 18 to 19, who have never had sexual intercourse.


1988: 27

1995: 32

2002: 31


1988: 23

1995: 25

2002: 36

Source: “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing 2002,” National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services.

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