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Health & Sex

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Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Loses Steam

Lawmakers, Health Groups Question Value of Federal Abstinence-Only Program
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 23, 2008 -- Health and medical groups on Wednesday called for federal "abstinence-only" sex education funding to be scrapped, saying the programs have not helped lower teens' rates of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

The calls come as Democrats in Congress consider trying to suspend funding for the programs, which have become an ideological flash point between Republicans and Democrats over the last decade.

The federal government does not tell school districts what kind of sex education to administer. But the Bush administration strongly backs a program that sends millions of dollars to state and local public school authorities if those dollars are spent on programs urging teens to abstain from sex until they're married.

Seventeen states, including California, have opted out of the programs, choosing to forgo federal funds and instead teach about abstinence along with contraception, including condom use.

(What do you think of abstinence-only programs? Share your opinion on WebMD's Voice Your Vote: Election '08 message board.)

Experts from several health groups told lawmakers Wednesday that abstinence-only programs have failed to show evidence of delaying kids' foray into sex or in staving off teen pregnancies for those who do have sex.

"To limit them to abstinence-only does not comport with the evidence. It does not, at least in my judgment, seem wise," Harvey Feinberg, MD, president of the Institute of Medicine, told lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Feinberg pointed to a study of sexual education programs conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration. Out of 13 studies testing abstinence-only programs, none showed "an enduring effect" on teens' sexual behavior, he said.

But 23 of 39 studies of programs combining abstinence advice with education about condoms and other contraception found "at least some" effect on adolescents' behavior.

"That doesn't mean they worked very, very well," Feinberg said.

Teen Pregnancy Down

Teen pregnancy rates have fallen from 117 births per 1,000 females in 1990 to 76 per 1,000 in 2002, a 35% drop, according to the National Survey of Family Growth, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

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