Abstinence-Based Education Works

Mar 30th, 2019 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The controversy over sex education in the public schools is a major cultural issue in America.  Since the federal government has gotten involved in funding such programs, it has become even more provocative and controversial.  Former President Bush made the decision to pour significant federal dollars into funding abstinence-based sex education programs.  Indeed, the U.S. government has funded abstinence programs in schools and community organizations since the early 1980s. An increased focus on and funding for them began as part of welfare reform efforts undertaken during the Clinton administration. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the federal government has spent about $2 billion over the past 20 years on abstinence-based education.  President Trump has also been friendly to such programs, naming Valerie Huber, an advocate for abstinence-only education, to a post at the Department of Health and Human Services. The administration recently cut more than $200 million in federal funds for teen pregnancy prevention programs. Meanwhile, the administration’s budget proposal includes millions of dollars to extend the “Abstinence Education and Personal Responsibility Education Program.”  That approach pleases much of Trump’s conservative base. In a statement to NPR, Arina Grossu, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, said abstinence-based programs “provide the optimal message for teens.” She compared the approach to “other public health models used to address underage drinking and drug use” that aim to discourage such behaviors.


Conservative groups have long advocated abstinence education in public schools, pointing to a smaller number of studies that support abstinence-based approaches. Reacting to the report, Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance noted that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective form of birth control.  “It seems we have swung so far left as to embrace promiscuity for our kids,” Nance said in a statement to NPR. “And at the least, we are surrendering to the idea that teenagers will be sexually active. We, as a culture, can do better.”


A recent path-breaking study provides scientific evidence that abstinence programs work.  Washington Post reporter Rob Stein reports on the first carefully designed study (published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine) in which researchers found that only about a third of 6th and 7th graders who went through sessions that focused on abstinence started having sex in the next two years.  In contrast, nearly half of students who got other classes, including those that included information about contraception, became sexually active.  Dr. John B. Jemmott III, professor at University of Pennsylvania, has suggested that “I think we’ve written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence.  Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used.”  Indeed, Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy argues that “this new study is game-changing.  For the first time, there is strong evidence that an abstinence-only intervention can help very young teens delay sex and reduce their recent sexual activity as well.”  Further, Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, suggests that “this takes away the main pillar of opposition to abstinence education.”  Stein reports that even long-term critics of abstinence education agree that this study provides strong evidence that such programs can work and deserve taxpayer support.

This new study involved 662 African-American students who were randomly assigned to go through one of five programs:  An eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on teaching safe sex; an eight-to twelve-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching the youngsters other ways to be healthy, such as eating well and exercising.  Stein reports: “Over the next two years, about 33% of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared to about 52% who were just taught safe sex.  About 42% of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47% of those who just learned about other ways to be healthy. The abstinence program had no negative effects on condom use, which has been a major criticism of the abstinence approach.”  The abstinence-only program covered information about HIV, beliefs about abstinence and ways to resist the pressure to have sex.

In conclusion, permit me to summarize a point I have made many times on Issues in Perspective:  “When a culture does not honor, encourage and facilitate the sexual ethic presented in Scripture, there will be consequences.”  This is neither a flippant remark nor one that ignores compassion.  Romans 1:18-32 details a pattern for us.  God has revealed His truth clearly and forthrightly, with the result that no human will ever be “without excuse” (v. 20) when it comes to understanding His truth.  When humans ignore His clearly revealed truth, God “gives them over” (vv. 24, 26, 28) to behaviors that are ultimately self-destructive in their nature.   God has made His world with established ethical standards.  If humans follow those common grace standards, His common grace blessings will follow.  If humans choose to ignore His common grace standards, there will be obvious, clear consequences.  As our dysfunctional culture ignores God’s clearly established boundaries for sexual activity, there will be tragic consequences.  For that reason there are sexually transmitted diseases and there are teen pregnancies.  It is the teens and the children that are then born of such pregnancies that will suffer.  This is the tragedy of these statistics.  Congress cannot pass laws that will change this.  Social workers cannot simply pass out condoms and expect behavior to change. There needs to be a fundamental change of the human heart that sees things the way God sees them.  Our only hope is families and our culture saturated with God’s Word and His standards.  The heart of our dysfunctional culture’s problem is indeed spiritual.

See Sarah MacCammon, “Abstinence-Only Education Is Ineffective and Unethical,” NPR (23 August 2017); Rob Stein in the Washington Post (1 February 2010) and Tamar Lewin in the New York Times (3 February 2010).

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