Congress urgently needs to address the disconnect between young Americans’ need for realistic sex education and the hard-line, abstinence-only-until-marriage approach embodied in current federal law. Despite compelling evidence that abstinence-only programs do not stop—or even delay—teen sex, these programs are currently funded at a level of $176 million annually. In contrast, there is no comparable federal program to support sex education that includes information about both abstinence and contraceptive use, an approach proven effective at promoting both delays in sexual activity and protective behaviors among teens who become sexually active, according to “The Case for a New Approach to Sex Education Mounts: Will Policymakers Heed the Message?” by Heather Boonstra, published in the Spring 2007 issue of the Guttmacher Policy Review.
“In the interest of public health, as well as a matter of common sense, Congress should break with the past and invest our scarce public dollars where we know they will have the greatest impact—into a more comprehensive approach to sex education,” says Heather Boonstra, a Guttmacher senior public policy associate. “Comprehensive sex education stresses abstinence and responsible decision making, but also includes information on contraception and avoiding sexually transmitted infections. Both the evidence and the American public strongly support using this approach to help young people transition from adolescence to adulthood safely and responsibly.”
Boonstra’s analysis provides a broad overview of current research findings on sex education policies and related issues. Most recently, a nine-year, $8-million evaluation of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs found that these programs have no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior. The congressionally mandated study found that students who participated in what were thought to be the most “promising” abstinence-only programs were no more likely than nonparticipants to delay sexual initiation, nor to have fewer partners or use condoms when they did become sexually active.
In addition, three recent Guttmacher Institute studies found that:
- One in three teens currently get no education about birth control at all, and of those who do, many do not get it when they need it most—before they start to have sex.
- Improved contraceptive use and use of more effective birth control methods—not teens abstaining from sex—are responsible for 86% of the recent declines in teen pregnancy.
- More than nine in 10 Americans have sex before marriage, and have done so for generations.
“Viewed together, these findings demonstrate just how dysfunctional the U.S. government’s approach to sex education has become,” says Boonstra. “For instance, despite the fact that the bulk of the recent decline in U.S. teen pregnancy rates is the result of improved contraceptive use, the Bush administration and some members of Congress want to increase funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. There is no evidence base to justify current policies—let alone the well over $1 billion that the federal government has poured into ineffective abstinence-only programs over the last decade.”