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Abstinence-only 'sex ed' doesn't work

A US study has shown that a comprehensive sex education that includes discussion of birth control can reduce teen pregnancies, while abstinence-only programs are little better than nothing.

Using data on more than 1,700 unmarried, heterosexual teens aged 15-19 from a 2002 national survey, researchers found that teens who'd received comprehensive sex ed in school were 60% less likely to have become pregnant (or impregnated someone else) than those who'd had no formal sex education.

In the study, the first ever to compare the effects of comprehensive sex ed and abstinence-only 'education', abstinence-only programs fared little better than no sex education at all. Teens who'd been through such programs were less likely to have been pregnant than those who'd received no sex ed but the difference was so tiny it was not significant in statistical terms.

In addition, there was no evidence that comprehensive sex education increased the likelihood of teens having sex - a concern of people who oppose teaching birth control in schools - or increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Neither program made much difference to this.

This study 'solidly debunks the myth that teens who learn about birth control are more likely to have sex,' said lead researcher Pamela K. Kohler, of the Center for AIDS and STD at the University of Washington in Seattle. 'The bottom line is that there is strong evidence that comprehensive sex education is more effective than abstinence-only education at preventing teen pregnancies.'

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, challenges current US government policy head on. Currently, the federal government champions the abstinence-only approach, giving around $170 million each year to states and community groups to teach kids to say no to sex. To get the funding the course must not mention birth control and condoms, other than to emphasize their failure rates.

Critics have long pointed out that studies have failed to show that abstinence-only education delays sex or lowers rates of teen pregnancy. But according to Kohler, there is now a body of evidence showing that the comprehensive approach may cut the odds of teen pregnancy, without increasing the likelihood of teens having sex. The problem is 'there seems to be a gap between scientific evidence and policy change.'

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy say that over three million of the 6.4 million pregnancies in the United States annually are unplanned. More than half a million teenagers have unplanned pregnancies every year.

Page created on March 25th, 2008

Page updated on December 1st, 2009