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17 April 2007

USA: Abstinence eduction does not work, claims study

A study of four abstinence education programmes has found that they do not stop young people having sex.

The study, conducted conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., for the US Department of Health and Human Services, was authorised by Congress in 1997 to evaluate the effectiveness of programmes funded under Title V, Section 510 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. According to Mathematica, more than 700 Title V, Section 510 programmes nationwide receive up to $50 million annually from the federal government in order to teach youth about abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage. Additional funding from state matching block grants brings annual spending for Title V, Section 510 sexual abstinence education programs to $87.5 million.

The study found that youth in the four evaluated programmes were no more likely than youth not in the programmes to have abstained from sex in the four to six years after they began participating in the study. Youth in both groups who reported having had sex also had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same average age.

Contrary to concerns raised by some critics of federal funding for abstinence education, however, youth in the abstinence education programmes were no more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex than youth who did not participate in the programs.

‘This is the first study of multi-year abstinence programmes, and it is one of the few that has tracked its sample members for as long as six years,’ said Christopher Trenholm, the project director and a senior researcher at Mathematica. ‘The study finds that the sexual abstinence of students in four programmes selected for the study was much the same as that of students who did not participate in these programmes.’

‘There’s not a lot of good news here for people who pin their hopes on abstinence-only education,’ said Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a privately funded organisation that monitors sex education programmes. ‘This is the first study with a solid, experimental design, the first with adequate numbers and long-term follow-up, the first to measure behaviour and not just intent. On every measure, the effectiveness of the programs was flat.’

The Washington Post reports that this study comes as questions are being raised in several quarters about abstinence programmes. A bill introduced in Congress, sponsored by both Republican and Democratic members, would allocate money for sex education that teaches abstinence and contraception. In addition, eight states that used to receive funding for abstinence programmes have decided to stop doing so, two of them very recently.

However, Harry Wilson, a top official in the Department of Health and Human Services, said that the administration has no intention of changing funding priorities in light of the results. ‘This study isn’t rigorous enough to show whether or not [abstinence-only] education works,’ Wilson said.

The study used a scientifically based approach to measure the impacts of the programmes, comparing outcomes for two statistically equivalent groups - a programme group and a control group - created by random assignment. Youth in the programme group were eligible to receive the abstinence education programme services, while those in the control group received only the usual health, family life, and sex education services available in their schools and communities. Youth were enrolled in the study sample over three consecutive school years, from autumn 1999 to autumn 2001, and randomly assigned within schools to either the programme or the control group.

The results in this report are based on a survey given to 2,057 youth in 2005 and 2006, roughly four to six years after they began participating in the study; 1,209 had participated in one of the Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programmes and 848 had been assigned to the control group. By the time the last follow-up survey was completed, youth had entered their mid to late teens, permitting the researchers to measure programme impacts on teen sexual activity and other risk behaviours.

The four programmes studied include My Choice, My Future! in Powhatan County, Virginia; ReCapturing the Vision in Miami, Florida; Teens in Control in Clarksdale, Mississippi; and Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mathematica is a nonpartisan research firm, which conducts policy research and surveys for federal and state governments, foundations, and private-sector clients.

Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs, by Christopher Trenholm, Barbara Devaney, Ken Forston, Lisa Quay, Justin Wheeler, and Melissa Clark. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., April 2007.

Study Casts Doubt on Abstinence-Only Programs, Washington Post, 14 April 2007

National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Statement on Abstinence-Only Program Evaluation, 13 April 2007