This week, the federal government announced its decision to cut funding for a nationwide program that supports teen abstinence. The decision was made in order to settle a lawsuit between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Department of Health and Human Services. The lawsuit, brought by the ACLU, claimed that this program used federal funds to push Christian propaganda.
The program, the Silver Ring Thing, has received more than $1 million in federal funding in the past three years. The Christian-centered program targets teenage audiences in churches and asks teenage participants to sign pledges to remain abstinent until marriage.
This decision by the federal government was surprising, because of a 1996 decision by Congress to establish a federal program to exclusively fund sexual education programs teaching abstinence-only, and not more inclusive programs. Since the initiation of the abstinence-only movement, approximately $1 billion has been spent on these programs for teenagers.
But this issue isn’t just about the separation of church and state funding. This issue is about what really works in sex education.
Abstinence-only programs, although they are used in the majority of American high schools, simply do not work.
While abstinence is the only 100 percent effective method against pregnancy, as well as all sexually transmitted diseases and infections, more than half of American teenagers report being sexually active.
According to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, students in comprehensive sexuality education classes don’t engage in sexual activity more often or earlier, but “do use contraception and practice safer sex more consistently when they become sexually active.”
Dissenters of these comprehensive sexual education programs believe that giving students information about sex will encourage teens to have it.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Sociology found that 88 percent of students who pledge abstinence in middle or high school still engage in premarital sex. The study also found that teens who break this pledge are less likely to use contraception than non-pledgers, and have similar rates of sexually transmitted infections.
In a joint study published last year, researchers at Yale and Columbia universities found that teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are more likely to take chances with other kinds of sex that increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases
Obviously, teenagers will continue to be sexually active. Simply because a student is made aware of safe sex options does not mean that they will engage in them.
In a country that has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, it is impractical to believe that these widely-used abstinence programs work without having any evidence to support it.