Monday, February 8, 2010

Is Abstinence Education More Effective than Safe Sex Education?

Both the NY Times and had stories this week on a study published in the most recent issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine claiming that abstinence only programs may be more effective than common safe sex programs at delaying middle school aged children from having sex. The study divided a group of 662 seventh and eighth grade African-American students in urban schools into four different programs. The programs included an abstinence only program, a safe sex program, a comprehensive program covering both abstinence and condoms, and a control group that offered general health information. The participants were polled two years after the program to determine if they had engaged in sexual intercourse. The abstinence only group proved to be the most effective with only 33% of the children having engaged in sexual intercourse. It was followed by the comprehensive program (40%), control group (47%) and the safe sex group (52%).

However, this abstinence only program was not the traditional abstinence only program that one might expect. It did not pressure the children into abstinence, but rather highlighted the ways in which pregnancy and STDs may interfere with the children’s life goals. The children were never taught to abstain until marriage, but rather until they were more mature. If children questioned the teacher about condoms or other forms of birth control, they received medically accurate answers.

Public support for abstinence only education has been a major issue in the American legal system for the past two decades. The American Civil Liberties Union has been involved in a number of lawsuits questioning the use of taxpayer money to promote religion and to disseminate medically inaccurate information. The Obama administration has just recently eliminated funding for abstinence only programs that promote abstinence until marriage, in favor of more diverse programs. Though the abstinence only program from this study does not promote religion, some religiously conservative proponents think that the results may be a step towards the revival of abstinence until marriage programs. This brings to light several questions. Should abstinence only programs such as the one from this study be allowed in public schools? Should abstinence until marriage programs be allowed in public schools? Where do we draw the line?

I believe that it is constitutional to allow “abstinence until mature” programs such as the one from this study, in public schools because they do not promote any religious beliefs. However, I do not think that the programs would be effective for children who have already lost their virginity. Therefore, I think that the programs should be restricted to middle schools in which a majority of the student population has not engaged in sexual intercourse. On the other hand, I do not think that abstinence until marriage programs have a place in any public schools. Though the programs may have a similar message to “abstinence until mature” programs, they impose religious beliefs on participants in a way that “abstinence until mature” programs do not.

Where do we draw the line? I think that it is constitutional to allow all sexual education programs that are medically sound and do not promote abstinence until marriage. Whether or not all programs that adhere to these criteria will be effective is another issue entirely.


Jessica B said...

I think the idea of abstinence only education in school is risky. It should definitely be emphasized at the middle school age to wait until they are more mature and can understand the possible consequences of sexual intercourse before they engage in it. But what about the kids who don’t listen; there will always be some. Even though it may seem to conflict the underlying message, it is also extremely important to educate the young on how to engage in sex safely. “"If you've got 24 percent of your class that's sexually active, what about them?" Wagoner asked.” There will be a time, be it a year or five after taking this alleged sex-ed class, that the student will have sex and they need to be taught the precautions to take before it is too late.

David I said...

These articles and the issues with abstinence- only education raises questions that are similar to the evolution debate that is occurring in schools today. While many groups argue that abstinence is the only way to prevent teen pregnancies, it is unrealistic to assume that every child will avoid having sex before marriage. In my opinion, it is important for teachers to discuss al means of birth control, as well as the risks involved with un-safe practices like those that took place in the study. Like the evolution debate, where many teachers only focus on creationism, by skipping lessons involving other forms of birth-control, students are not getting the entire picture in regards to this subject.

Shannon H. said...

The study states that condom use was not affected, but I would like to know more about that. I think that sexual activity is certainly a relevant and important measurement of the effects of abstinence-only versus safe sex education, but it is not the only indicator. STD rates and pregnancy rates are also an important factor, and I would have liked to see the articles address that more. I think that while I may personally feel that abstinence-only programs are not best for students, this new approach is at least distanced enough from religion to be appropriate. Telling middle schoolers that they should wait until they are more mature is much less of a lesson in religious morals than telling high schoolers they should wait until they’re married.

josh l. said...

I wonder about how "efficacy" is being measured in these studies. That is, I wonder whether the issue is framed in such a way that we miss the drive behind both abstinence-only education and safe-sex education. It seems that safe-sex education is placing value on "individual" choice regarding sexual ethics. Meaning "we" (the teachers, public education officials, etc.) are not here to tell you what is right or wrong, but instead to tell you how you might engage in sexual practices in a safe way if you choose to do so. While on the other hand, abstinence only education is telling students that it is wrong (or bad) to engage in any sort of sexual activity, in this case until "mature" (I also wonder about the vagueness of this term. When exactly is one "mature?" and how is maturity measurable? It seems easy to say middle schoolers are not mature, but might get more complicated in later teenage years). And this seems to have a moral ground in most case, though this case might be an exception.

But this case seems to be a hybrid in that it measures sex education by how well it helps prevent "bad" things from happening in abstinence-only education. But this seems to reduce sex to a disease prevention exercise, and misses the other things sex might about. Certainly STD prevention along with teen pregnancy are important issues, that as a country we must face together. But isn't the reason abstinence-only versus safe sex education is an issue also because of bigger difference regarding sexual ethics? What I am trying to suggest is that it seems like abstinence-only is being measured by the standards of safe-sex education (i.e prevention) in this case and therefore might be talking past the standards of abstinence-only education (i.e. morality).

E.Levy said...

To my surprise I don’t think either of the articles accurately assess why abstinence only programs are so bad. Whether or not children today are having sex at earlier ages, should be of no interest to us as taxpayers. Rather, how these children are handling themselves, and if taking the necessary precautions are being taken, is the real matter at hand. It might be beneficial for the moral of society (possibly from a religious context) to teach children to delay sex, but paramount to that, is the need to educate children about it. While not unconstitutional to teach “abstinence till maturity,” proponents of the matter, must be silenced in favor of traditional medical opinion which clearly holds that teaching children about contraceptives and so on is supremely beneficial to anything else

JoeyM said...

So lets do some math. 33 percent of students in abstinence only program engaged in, I'm assuming, 'vaginal' intercourse. 52 percent of the students that took the safe sex course reported having intercourse. So, does this mean that the 33 percent ended up with an std or a child? Doesn't it also mean that the 52 percent did not acquire an std or a baby? I am fully aware of the outliers in the groups. The ones whose parents discussed sex with them, and the children who were smart enough to realize they needed a condom if they were go to have sex. I think a lot more should go into a study like this. the factors discussed are not the ONLY factors.

Personally I believe no sex until marriage should be taught, but not by the school. It should be taught by the parents who should be the ones responsible for this anyway. Taking this burden off the parents was a terrible choice in the first place.

Gavin C. said...

With the crackdown on tobacco companies and the heated health care debate, the idea that the government has a stake in promoting health-conscious citizens is taking hold in America. Sex education in schools is a necessary component in this promotion. While the study found the “abstinence until mature” approach was the most successful, it was not successful for a third of the students involved. If 33% of children are going to have sex by the time they are 14, it is not enough to teach them that they should not have sex. In fact, it is not even enough to teach children about the potential consequences sex may carry. If the goal is to cultivate young citizens who are well-educated about sexual health, students should also be taught of all the ways one can avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. But, it cannot even stop there. As the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy says in the CNN article:
"True and lasting progress requires not only good programs in schools and communities, but also supportive norms and values, informed and active parents, good health services, a positive media culture and more."
As I have learned through teaching in a poverty-stricken, rural school system, the problem of teenage sex is a community problem, and the children who are most at risk are those born of a teen pregnancy. Parental education is just as important as student education, and support systems need to be developed to make any sex education effective. I do not think that “faith-based” abstinence programs should be supported in schools, but since religious communities are part of the community-at-large, religious institutions should not be discouraged from taking part in the construction of support systems. It seems that this is a situation in which government and religious organizations could work together if everyone could agree on how to address the problem.