Buoyed by $1.9 billion in government funding since 1997 ($1.5 billion of that federal money), abstinence-only education grew from a niche market to a booming industry, with hundreds of curriculums for teachers to choose from. But if the 2000s were abstinence’s boom years, the next decade may well be its bust. With Obama’s budget for 2010 dropping all abstinence-until-marriage funds from the federal budget, past grantees are left uncertain. Congress could restore funding; the Senate Finance Committee voted to do so, 12-11, last month. But the measure must still pass the full Congress, where chances are slim. So abstinence-only groups are left hoping private donors will step forward to at least partially fill the gap.
This is very good news. Every dollar the religious right’s money people have to spend on this is one less dollar they spend on other things. The ridiculous idea of abstinence-only sex ed is finally starting to be turned back. And on this one, let us praise Obama for doing exactly what he promised to do and getting rid of federal funding for this very, very bad policy.
In the beginning, the public-health community was open to the programs. The United States did, after all, have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world. “There was open-mindedness then, that it might work” says John Santelli, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Everyone is willing to give new ideas a trial period.” By 1999, one study estimated a third of American students were receiving an abstinence-only education. But as funding grew, so did a body of research showing that abstinence didn’t change the sexual behaviors of students; pregnancy and STD rates did not go down, the age of initial sexual activity did not go up. “Each evaluation came along … and each showed it didn’t work,” says Santelli. The articles appeared in peer-reviewed journals, many in the Journal of Adolescent Health, and in government-commissioned reviews. In 2007, a federally funded study of four abstinence programs found its students no more likely to abstain than those in a comprehensive program. At the same time, comprehensive programs that discuss contraceptives and their use received better, although by no means perfect, marks. Researcher Doug Kirby’s 2008 review of 48 studies of comprehensive curriculum found that two thirds , either reduced frequency of sex or number of sexual partners. By time Obama cut Title V abstinence-education funds from his budget, 25 states had already begun rejecting the money, 16 because they didn’t agree ideologically or weren’t seeing results, the others for administrative reasons.
There’s no single reason abstinence-only education proved largely ineffective, researchers say. A major factor, to be sure, was the incomplete information it provided about contraceptives and their use. “The programs that have by far the strongest evidence that they have a positive impact … are those that give the message that not having sex is safest, but if you have sex always use condom and contraception,” says Kirby. Message aside, the curriculums themselves were often found to be riddled with inaccuracies. Two major reviews of abstinence curriculums–one in 2004 from the House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Reform, another by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund earlier this year–found unsourced and incorrect information about STDs, contraceptives, and the consequences of sexual activity. The Texas report, which collected data from over 96 percent of the state’s school districts, found one curriculum teaching that condoms have “little to no benefit.” (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes condoms as “highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV infection and reduce the risk of other STDs” when used consistently and correctly.) Another incorrect abstinence-only lesson used in the Baird Independent School District: “a young person who becomes sexually active at or before age 14 will contract an STD before graduating from high school. This is no longer the exception, but the rule.” Religious influence was another problem for some abstinence-education programs; the American Civil Liberties Union mounted a number of lawsuits (some successful, some not) against abstinence-only curriculums in public schools and state-sponsored events that advanced a specific religious perspective.
Let’s put the final nail in the coffin of this one.