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Impact of Abstinence Programs Unclear

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"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.

"These (abstinence) programs are required by law to exclude any discussion of contraception, except in terms of their failure rate," says Heather Boonstra, senior public policy associate for the Alan Guttmacher Institute. "We are certainly not against delaying sexual activity. But these programs ignore the fact that many young people eventually do become sexually active. And they are often not prepared."

A Guttmacher Institute report published last month charged that abstinence-based education programs may endanger teen health. The report cited research evaluating "virginity pledges," which are popular within the abstinence movement. The study found that teens who sign the pledges often fail to use birth control if they end up having sex.

Federal guidelines require that abstinence programs receiving public funding teach eight specific messages, including the idea that "abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is an expected standard for all school-aged children." Another mandate requires programs to "teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

"There is no medical basis for this statement, but these programs are required to teach it to young people," Boonstra says.

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