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.