For the Record

Congress Examines the Evidence on Abstinence-Only Education Programs

Heather D. Boonstra, Guttmacher Institute
The time is now. Will you stand up for reproductive health and rights?

First published online:

Continued funding for federal abstinence-only-until-marriage programs was hotly debated during a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on April 23. The firstever congressional hearing to examine the effectiveness of abstinence-only education clearly put social conservatives on the defensive against a wealth of evidence that such a highly restrictive educational approach is not effective in stopping or delaying teen sex.

A panel of public health experts, including representatives of the American Public Health Association and the Institute of Medicine, testified that there is no evidence base to support the current, massive federal investment in abstinence-only programs. "In fact," said Margaret Blythe of the American Academy of Pediatrics, "abstinence-only programs are not only ineffective but may cause harm by providing inadequate and inaccurate information and resulting in participants’ failure to use safer sex practices once intercourse is initiated." Indeed, a recent, congressionally mandated evaluation of federally funded abstinence-only programs by Mathematica Policy Research found that these programs have no beneficial impact on whether young people abstain, when they first have sex or their numbers of sexual partners.

John Santelli, chairman of the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute, pointed out that premarital sex is nearly universal among Americans. By the time they reach age 44, 99% of Americans have had sex, and 95% have done so before marriage. "Expecting people to wait until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse is simply unrealistic." Santelli and other experts pointed to an extensive body of research demonstrating that comprehensive sex education can help young people both delay having sex and prepare to use condoms and other contraceptives once they do become sexually active. And yet, "we have no dedicated source of federal funding specifically for comprehensive classroom sex education," argued Chairman Henry Waxman (DCA).

Sen. Sam Brownback (RKS) and an official from the Administration for Children and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, defended the abstinenceuntilmarriage approach. They maintained that programs focusing on complete "risk avoidance," as opposed to risk reduction, are necessary to counterbalance ongoing U.S. family planning programs, which they equated with a federal comprehensive sex education effort. Brownback and House conservatives called into question the evidence on abstinence-only programs and stuck to their mantra that abstinence is 100% effective. "There is no more scientific fact," said Rep. Virginia Foxx (RNC), "[than] that abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs and pregnancy."

Comprehensive sex education advocates are hopeful that the oversight hearing will be an important next step toward ending federal support for two highly restrictive abstinence education programs that prohibit the provision of any information about contraceptives, except to emphasize their failure rates. Attention first turns to the $50 million program of grants to states, which since 1996 has been enshrined in Title V of the Social Security Act and is set to expire on June 30, 2008. To date, at least 17 states have said they will no longer accept their Title V allotments; more than 12 million young people aged 12–18, 42% of those nationwide, now live in states that have declined participation in the Title V program.

Advocates are also gearing up for an appropriations battle. Of the $176 million in the total federal allotment for abstinence-only programs this year, $113 million flows directly to community and faith-based organizations under the CommunityBased Abstinence Education (CBAE) program. Last month, 76 House members sent a letter to Rep. David Obey (DWI), chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, urging him to eliminate the CBAE program from next year’s budget. "Now, as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, we must…scale back our nation’s investment in this ineffective program," says the letter. "Our teens—and our taxpaying constituents—deserve nothing less." —Heather D. Boonstra