[S]ex education has long occupied an ideological fault line in American life. Religious conservatives worry that teaching teenagers about birth control will encourage premarital sex. Liberals argue that failing to teach about it ensures more unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. So it was a welcome development when, a few years ago, Congress began to shift funding for sex education to focus on evidence-based outcomes, letting effectiveness determine which programs would get money.
But a recent move by the Trump administration seems set to undo this progress.
Federal support for abstinence-until-marriage programs had increased sharply under the administration of George W. Bush, and focus on it continued at a state and local level after he left office. From 2000 until 2014, the percentage of schools that required education in human sexuality fell to 48 percent from 67 percent. By 2014, half of middle schools and more than three-quarters of high schools were focusing on abstinence. Only a quarter of middle schools and three-fifths of high schools taught about birth control. In 1995, 81 percent of boys and 87 percent of girls reported learning of birth control in school.
Sex education focused on an abstinence-only approach fails in a number of ways.
First, it’s increasingly impractical. Trying to persuade people to remain abstinent until they are married is only getting harder because of social trends. The median age of Americans when they first have sex in the United States is now just under 18 years for women and just over 18 years for men. The median age of first marriage is much higher, at 26.5 years for women and 29.8 for men. This gap has increased significantly over time, and with it the prevalence of premarital sex.
Second, the evidence isn’t there that abstinence-only education affects outcomes. In 2007, a number of studies reviewed the efficacy of sexual education. The first was a systematic review conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. It found no good evidence to support the idea that such programs delayed the age of first sexual intercourse or reduced the number of partners an adolescent might have.
The second was a Cochrane meta-analysis that looked at studies of 13 abstinence-only programs together and found that they showed no effect on these factors, or on the use of protection like condoms. A third was published by Mathematica, a nonpartisan research organization, and it, too, found that abstinence programs had no effect on sexual abstinence for youth.
In 2010, Congress created the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, with a mandate to fund age-appropriate and evidence-based programs. Communities could apply for funding to put in only approved evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs, or evaluate promising and innovative new approaches. The government chose Mathematica to determine independently which programs were evidence-based, and the list is updated with new and evolving data.
Of the many programs some groups promote as being abstinence-based, Mathematica has confirmed four as having evidence of being successful. Healthy Futures and Positive Potential had one study each showing mixed results in reducing sexual activity. Heritage Keepers and Promoting Health Among Teens (PHAT) had one study each showing positive results in reducing sexual activity.
But it’s important to note that there’s no evidence to support that these abstinence-based programs influence other important metrics: the number of sexual partners an adolescent might have, the use of contraceptives, the chance of contracting a sexually transmitted infection or even becoming pregnant. There are many more comprehensive programs (beyond the abstinence-only approach) on the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program’s list that have been shown to affect these other aspects of sexual health.
Since the program began, the teenage birthrate has dropped more than 40 percent. It’s at a record low in the United States, and it has declined faster since then than in any other comparable period. Many believe that increased use of effective contraception is the primary reason for this decline; contraception, of course, is not part of abstinence-only education.
There have been further reviews since 2007. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted two meta-analyses: one on 23 abstinence programs and the other on 66 comprehensive sexual education programs. The comprehensive programs reduced sexual activity, the number of sex partners, the frequency of unprotected sexual activity, and sexually transmitted infections. They also increased the use of protection (condoms and/or hormonal contraception). The review of abstinence programs showed a reduction only in sexual activity, but the findings were inconsistent and that significance disappeared when you looked at the stronger study designs (randomized controlled trials).
This year, researchers published a systematic review of systematic reviews (there have been so many), summarizing 224 randomized controlled trials. They found that comprehensive sex education improved knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and outcomes. Abstinence-only programs did not.
Considering all this accumulating evidence, it was an unexpected setback when the Trump administration recently canceled funding for 81 projects that are part of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, saying grants would end in June 2018, two years early — a decision made without consulting Congress.
Those 81 projects showed promise and could provide us with more data. It’s likely that all the work spent investigating what is effective and what isn’t will be lost. The money already invested would be wasted as well.
The move is bad news in other ways, too. The program represented a shift in thinking by the federal government, away from an ideological approach and toward an evidence-based one but allowing for a variety of methods — even abstinence-only — to coexist.
The Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine has just released an updated evidence report and position paper on this topic. It argues that many universally accepted documents, as well as international human rights treaties, “provide that all people have the right to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds,’ including information about their health.” The society argues that access to sexual health information “is a basic human right and is essential to realizing the human right to the highest attainable standard of health.” It says that abstinence-only-until-marriage education is unethical.
Instead of debating over the curriculum of sexual education, we should be looking at the outcomes. What’s important are further decreases in teenage pregnancy and in sexually transmitted infections. We’d also like to see adolescents making more responsible decisions about their sexual health and their sexual behavior.
Abstinence as a goal is more important than abstinence as a teaching point. By the metrics listed above, comprehensive sexual health programs are more effective.
Whether for ethical reasons, for evidence-based reasons or for practical ones, continuing to demand that adolescents be taught solely abstinence-until-marriage seems like an ideologically driven mission that will fail to accomplish its goals.
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