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Abstinence-Only Programs Do Not Work, New Study Shows

April 18, 2007

A long-awaited, congressionally mandated evaluation of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage education programs has found that they have no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior. Program recipients were no more likely than nonrecipients to delay sexual initiation, and when they did become sexually active, program recipients had the same number of sexual partners and were no more likely to use condoms or other forms of contraception.

The comprehensive, nine-year study by Mathematica Policy Research examined four abstinence-only education programs that state officials and experts had identified as “promising” and as representative of abstinence-only programs nationally. Participating youth—from a mix of urban and rural settings and from various socioeconomic backgrounds—were enrolled over three consecutive school years between 1999 and 2001 and randomly assigned to the program group or to a control group that received only the usual services available in the community. Follow-up data were collected from more than 2,000 students in 2005 and 2006—four to six years after they were first enrolled in the study.

“This rigorous, well-designed study adds to and confirms previous research findings that abstinence-only education programs are ineffective and a waste of taxpayer dollars,” says Sharon L. Camp, president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute. “The twin messages to policymakers are clear: One, stop funding ideology-driven abstinence-only programs. Two, start supporting programs that provide our young people with comprehensive sex education that teaches the benefits of abstinence, but also prepares them to be safe if and when they do become sexually active.”

Comprehensive sex education has been shown in numerous studies by well-respected researchers both to delay sex and to increase contraceptive use. However, while the federal government spends about $177 million each year on the ineffective abstinence-only programs highlighted in the new study, there is currently no federal funding at all for comprehensive sex education.

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