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'Abstinence-Only' Sex Ed May Change Attitudes

Unclear If Programs Also Change Teen Sexual Behavior

Changes in Attitudes continued...

Abstinence-only programs also appeared to convince more students that premarital sex carries potential consequences. But the study found that the classes had little or no additional impact on students' self-esteem or on their ability to talk about sex with their parents.

Forty-seven percent of high school students reported having had sex at least once in 2003, down from 54% in 1991, according to the CDC. About 425,500 teenage girls gave birth in 2002, though teenage birth rates dropped sharply from 62 to 43 per 1,000 births since 1991, according to the agency.

"Abstinence education has contributed to this decline," says Bridgit Maher, family and marriage policy analyst with the Family Research Council, a conservative group.

Attitudes = Behavior?

Abstinence-only programs remain highly controversial among educators and health experts, though such programs have been eligible for federal funding since 1998. Some 900 abstinence-only programs are funded through a federal program called Title V, which spends $50 million per year on them.

The programs are strongly backed by the Bush administration and conservative groups, who argue that educating students about contraception encourages early sexual experimentation.

"Students in these programs are recognizing that abstinence is a positive choice they are making," Michael O'Grady, the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters Tuesday.

O'Grady called the report "the most rigorous evaluation of its kind."

The study's results suggest that abstinence-only programs "seem to be moving in the direction that they want them to," Sarah Brown, president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, tells WebMD.

The report also found "limited evidence" that abstinence-only classes increased some students' expectations to actually avoid sex until marriage.

But Brown stressed that those attitudes may or may not translate to delaying or avoiding sex later on. "What we've always known is that attitudes don't necessarily match behavior. What people say and what they do is often at great variance," she says.

Researchers say they are now evaluating the same group of students to see if abstinence programs affect the likelihood of engaging in sex or using contraception as children reach 16 years of age.

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