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Impact of Abstinence Programs Unclear

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WebMD Health News

April 26, 2002 -- Do abstinence-based education programs succeed in keeping teens from having sex? A new report concludes that it is too soon to tell, but it also shows that abstinence programs have "changed the local landscape of approaches to teenage pregnancy prevention and youth risk avoidance."

Sexual abstinence was on the minds of President Bush and Congress this week as the House Commerce Committee voted to extend a federal initiative to fund education programs urging teens to just say no to sex.

The Bush administration has proposed doubling funding for abstinence programs, to $138 million next year. On Wednesday, during a fund-raising trip to Sioux Falls, S.D., Bush met with Leslie Unruh of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse. Unruh tells WebMD that even if federal funding shrinks, the abstinence movement will go on.

"There are now abstinence programs all over the country because it is a message that teens want to hear," she says. "It is irresponsible and dangerous to tell young people that they are protected against pregnancy and disease if they use contraceptives. Our message is that abstinence is the only sure protection."

The newly released report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, assessed the first four years of federal funding for abstinence-based education. Among the findings:

  • Most abstinence programs offer more than the single message, "don't have sex." Programs often help teens develop decision-making skills and deal with situations where they are being pressured, says researcher Barbara Devaney, PhD, who co-authored the report. "The objectives often go far beyond dealing with sex, into teaching kids how to make good choices in their future life and future relationships," she tells WebMD.
  • Abstinence programs face challenges addressing peer pressure and communication problems that often exist between children and parents. The report noted that many programs have had trouble getting parents to participate.
  • Many programs have also had difficulty getting schools to participate, either because of a disagreement over the value of the programs or because of competing priorities.

Devaney tells WebMD that two future reports -- one due out early next year and the other in 2005 -- will provide better information about whether abstinence programs are actually preventing teen sex. Devaney is an economist and senior fellow with Mathematica Policy Research.

"We just haven't had a lot of time to gather evidence on their impact of these programs," she says. "As late as 1998, only 2% of schools taught abstinence as the only certain way to prevent teen pregnancy."

Opponents of abstinence-only education argue that the programs put teens at risk by denying them the information they need if they become sexually active. They say federal resources could be better spent making sure that teens who do have sex also have access to contraceptives. Approximately 65% of teens are no longer virgins by the time the graduate from high school, according to figures from the CDC.

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