In theory, it's fine. In practice, it usually fails. Research about abstinence-only programs is already quite clear, as we document in two new scientific papers in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Abstinence-only now has a new name: Abstinence-only programs do not prepare young people for life — and they do a poor job of preparing them to avoid sex. My training in pediatrics and medical ethics suggests that we instead should give young people all the information they need to protect themselves and to promote lifelong healthy sexuality.
Some adolescents believe that sex before marriage is wrong. Many more feel they are not ready for a sexual relationship. Most are not planning on getting married anytime soon. And while some adults think abstinence until marriage programs are the only moral choice for sex education, these programs fall short of the standards of medical ethics by limiting access to important health information.
The scientific evidence is clear. While abstinence is theoretically effective in preventing pregnancy, in actual practice, intentions to abstain from sexual activity often fail.
Early abstinence-only programs often contained medically inaccurate information. The most recent authoritative review of the scientific evidence comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC examined scientific evaluations from 66 comprehensive risk reduction programs and 23 abstinence-only programs.
The CDC found inconclusive evidence that abstinence-only programs helped young people delay sexual initiation; nor did they change other behaviors. In other words, comprehensive sexuality education helps young people remain abstinent, while abstinence-only education does not. The goal of abstinence until marriage also is increasingly improbable, given the rising age at marriage around the globe.
Young people in rich and poor countries are increasingly delaying marriage — often so young women and young men can complete education goals and begin careers — before starting a family. For young women, the median age at first marriage in the United States is Health education during adolescence forms the foundation of knowledge and skills that are needed for many years to come.
Federal funding guidelines for these programs have required an exclusive focus on abstinence, forbidding accurate information of condoms and contraception, sexual orientation and other aspects of human sexuality.
Some states began refusing the funding in the mids so they could provide their constituents with the comprehensive and medically accurate information they needed; by , nearly half of U. In , Congress shifted the focus of federal funding to evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs. But abstinence-only funding persisted — given renewed support from a conservative Congress after Mainstream health professional groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine , have come out strongly against abstinence-only approaches and in support of education that promotes health sexuality.
This is not surprising, given the emphasis in medical ethics on providing patients with all the information they need to make wise choices. Pediatricians feel the same way about educating children and adolescents.
Abstinence-only has been rejected by many mainline and progressive churches. National surveys demonstrate strong support among parents for sexuality education that gives young people all the information they need to protect their health. The adolescents that I work with think the same; they want all the information they can get. As the father of two adolescent males, I am with them. The weight of scientific evidence is clear. Parents, health professionals, church folks, educators and young people — we all need to stand up and tell Congress and the president to stop spending on useless and harmful programs.
Young people need straight talk about sex.