09 February 2010

Sex-Ed Debate Picks Up: Teen Pregnancy Climbs, Abstinence Advocates Mistake New Study as Proof

Two newly released studies have added fuel to the debate about our nation’s approach to sexuality education and reducing unintended teen pregnancy: one by the Guttmacher Institute, which reported an increase in teen pregnancy in the U.S. -- the reversal of a long-term decline -- and the other about an abstinence-only curriculum that was shown to delay sexual activity in very young adolescents.

Guttmacher reports that after teen-pregnancy rates began declining in 1990 (due to better use of contraceptives), the trend reversed in 2006 -- not surprisingly, at the depths of the Bush presidency. In fact, says Guttmacher, the decline had already begun to “stall out in the early 2000s, at the same time that sex education programs aimed exclusively at promoting abstinence -- and prohibited by law from discussing the benefits of contraception -- became increasingly widespread.”

Advocates for medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education received the new data as further evidence that abstinence-only programs don’t work. Yet, within a few days, another report was released suggesting that they can. The study, led by Dr. John Jemmott of the University of Pennsylvania, focused on a small group of preteens (average age 12) and demonstrated that a very particular kind of abstinence curriculum helped delay sexual activity for up to 24 months.

Abstinence-only advocates rejoiced, proclaiming the Jemmott study as proof that their approach was correct all along. But what they fail to acknowledge -- and what the press has failed to sufficiently report -- is that the program studied does not at all mirror the abstinence-only programs that received federal funding from the Bush Administration. For starters, the program doesn't even exist yet in schools. Second, instead of an abstinence-only-until-marriage program, the goal of the experimental one was to help young people avoid sex until they were "ready." Finally, the training and curriculum manual, in Jemmott's own words, "explicitly instructed the facilitators not to disparage the efficacy of condoms or allow the view that condoms are ineffective to go uncorrected" -- a significant departure from Bush-funded programs which often disparaged, prohibited, and/or delivered inaccurate information about contraception. The bottom line: the Jemmott study does not provide data to support the failed Bush-era abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

Read Ms. Foundation grantee Advocates for Youth response to the Jemmott study.
Read the Guttmacher report [PDF].
Read the Jemmott study.
Read a related post: Abstinence from Federal Sex-Ed Funding?

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