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The Real Lessons in the Study of Abstinence-Only Eucation

Both the Washington Post and the Washington Times have front page mention of the latest study on “abstinence-only” education programs. Both report on the alleged “failure” of these programs because they do not perform better than the traditional “have-sex-safely” programs. Many are calling for the end of funding for abstinence-only education. Why? They work just as well as the long-standing “how-to-have-sex” programs that these folks support funding. Students in the abstinence-only program were more knowledgeable about the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

I would say the results of this study are disappointing but I wouldn’t say they are the sweeping indictment of abstinence education that critics claim. I really can’t tell from reading the news articles what the rigorous definition of an “abstinence-only” program is. The Times mentions that four different abstinence programs were used.

The Mathematica study involved 2,057 children, including 1,209 who participated in "Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy" in Milwaukee; "ReCapturing the Vision" in Miami; "Teens in Control" in Clarksdale, Miss.; and "My Choice, My Future" in Powhatan, Va. Students were typically 11 or 12 years old when they started the programs; follow-up surveys were conducted five years later.

How do we know we are comparing four varieties of apples in these programs? Are we sure that significant differences among these programs do not exist?

I think Harry Wilson from the HHS Administration has some important words:

The research offers important lessons for future abstinence programming, said Harry Wilson, commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau at HHS Administration for Children and Families. "This report confirms what those of us who have experience working with youth already know: Interventions are not like vaccines; you can't expect a little dose in middle school to be protective through high school if abstinence education ends before the most important years."

The real issue I have with this study is that it did not control for the family environment. The news reports specifically state that the study did not control for variation in family income. I am guessing it also didn’t control for variables like single parents vs divorced parents vs married parents. Did the study control for parental attitudes about teen sexual activity? Did the study control for involvement in a faith community?

Perhaps what we have really learned is that sex-education programs independent of the family, whether they are school based or community based, are not effective in altering teen behavior. This shouldn’t be surprising. Studies of the D.A.R.E. program for drug and alcohol abuse prevention showed the same thing. Students raised in a family environment conducive to drug and alcohol abuse were more likely to abuse drug and alcohol. Participation in the D.A.R.E. program had no impact.

My position is that we should take sex education out of schools and put it back on the shoulders of the parents, where it belongs. No more outsourcing of character development or education in moral values. Because the truth of the matter is, those things cannot be outsourced. It is pointless to try and develop school or community based education programs that will be the overriding influence on teen behavior. Study after study shows public entities cannot replace parents. Parents teach their children one way or another. When divorced Mom is openly sleeping with her boyfriend, do you think her sixteen-year-old daughter is going to be swayed by an abstinence message at school? Church-based, school-based, or community-based programs can augment but not substitute for the lessons taught at home—whether these lessons are taught actively or passively. So perhaps the question is not whether abstinence-only programs should be state funded, but whether any sex-education programs that operate independent of families should be funded.


Anonymous said…
The real issue I have with this study is that it did not control for the family environment. The news reports specifically state that the study did not control for variation in family income. I am guessing it also didn’t control for variables like single parents vs divorced parents vs married parents. Did the study control for parental attitudes about teen sexual activity? Did the study control for involvement in a faith community?

It's best to read the full report rather than rely on media to filter it for you.

By randomly assigning kids to treatment (abstinence only) or control conditions, the study implicitly controlled for all of these things. The girls in the two groups were identical in every way except for whether they were exposed to abstinence only education.

In other words, if the treatment group had girls from single parent homes, then so did the control group. If the treatment group parents had a certain set of attitudes about teen sexuality, so would the control group parents, on average.

So the answer to your question is "yes, they controlled for everything."
Catholic Mom said…
I beg to differ. Thank you for the link. Now that I have looked at the report I am more convinced that the issue is not the type of education provided but rather the family environments. While there may have been no difference between control and study groups in family environment (this was not explicitly measured. It was assumed on the basis of random assignment to groups.) the family environment characteristics may have been so extreme that any hope of effect from the programs was unrealistic.

From page 21 of the report:

Youth in the study sample come from backgrounds that put them at relatively high risk of having sexual intercourse at an early age. With the exception of My Choice, My Future!, one-third or fewer of the samle youth in each site reported at baseline having parents who were married. They also reported relatively high rates of life stressors, such as sisters getting pregnant or siblings dropping out of school. Moreover, although almost all youth reported that they had a mother figure (95%), only four out of every five youth in the Recapturing the Vision and FUPTP samples reported having a father figure.

Therefore, if these programs are tested in populations where the family environment is overwhelmingly conducive to teenage sexual activity, the impact of these programs or any program will be minimal. Even those in the control group received the standard school based safe-sex program. Same lack of impact. All we can conclude is that in socially impoverished populations, interventions with sex-ed programs, either with abstinence only or standard safe-sex programs, are of little benefit.

My point is we are wasting our energy and resources trying to devise government funded programs to do what parents are supposed to be doing.
Catholic Mom said…
And anonymous: to be fair to the other readers of this blog please reveal your connection to this study. Your IP address on my site meter indicates you are with MPR--the organization that conducted this research.

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