Monday, April 23, 2007

After a 10-year run, federally funded “abstinence-only” education faces a reversal of fortunes this year.

Two recent studies — one that found federally funded abstinence programs do not affect teenage sexual behavior and another that found that “almost all” American adults have sex before marrying — are adding momentum to the argument that abstinence-only education is folly.

Advocates for Youth and its allies in comprehensive sex education plan to urge Congress to discredit abstinence-only education — and its eight-point definition — and replace it with programs that teach “abstinence plus contraception.”

The federal study of four abstinence programs released last week “is where the state evaluations and other research lead us, which is that the abstinence-only approach doesn’t work,” said James Wagoner, the group’s president. “I think it’s time for Congress to defund these [abstinence-only] programs, turn away from this policy and support a policy that includes both abstinence and contraception. I think that’s where common sense and public health leads us.”

Mr. Wagoner and his allies will be watching House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, whose panel can decide not to renew the $50-million-a-year Title V abstinence education program that expires in June.

In addition, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who authored a scathing critique of abstinence programs in 2004, is expected to hold hearings on abstinence education this spring.

Supporters of abstinence education do not plan to lose any of the ground they have gained since 1996, when the Title V program was created in the welfare reform law.

They say America has tried contraceptive sex education, and teen pregnancy rates rose as a result. They say that talking about sexual abstinence and birth control in the same program sends mixed messages to teens, and the eight-point definition of abstinence — which was created in the Title V program and is a core element of a larger abstinence funding stream — is geared to make sure abstinence funding is used for intended programs.

Abstinence supporters have some champions in Congress, notably Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican. But many of their original backers are now out of office, and they are scurrying to find new allies. The National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA), which opened a Washington office in February, has been created to look after their members’ interests.

The long-awaited Mathematica Policy Research Inc.’s evaluation of four federally funded abstinence programs released last week found that the programs made little or no difference in the sexual lives of students. Half of the students who received abstinence education abstained from sex, as did half the students who didn’t receive abstinence education.

The study was criticized for reviewing abstinence programs that began in elementary school and offered little or no follow-up. More than 700 Title V-funded programs are operating and the abstinence education field has matured and improved, said Valerie Huber, executive director of the NAEA. In fact, she said, studies released at a Baltimore conference last month show that programs can help teens delay sexual activity, encourage sexually active teens to become abstinent again and persuade sexually active teens to limit their sexual partners.

To Mr. Wagoner, though, the Mathematica study, conducted for the Department of Health and Human Services, should be a “slam dunk” for ending abstinence education and its eight-point definition. With Democrats now in charge of Congress, he added, “the debate will be had.”

A separate study on premarital sex, issued in the January/February issue of Public Health Reports by the Guttmacher Institute, should fuel the debate.

“Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades,” said study author Lawrence Finer, who found that 95 percent of adults in the federal National Survey of Family Growth had sexual intercourse before they married. “This is reality-check research,” said Mr. Finer, adding that the data challenged the idea that “abstinence until marriage” is “normative behavior.”

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