Is it too little, too late? Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 -- 1:00 AM

Just when it looked like state and federal abstinence-based sex education programs were set to lose funding, a new study shows that abstinence-only programs do work.

But is it too little, too late to change minds, hearts, and government programs?

I hope not.

editor's view by Mary C. Uhler

Effectiveness of abstinence-only programs

The new study published February 1 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that teens given an abstinence-only message were significantly more likely to delay having sex than those who received a more comprehensive sex education, reported a Catholic News Service article.

This research has been getting more attention because it is perhaps the first rigorously conducted study demonstrating the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs.

The study used random trials involving a group of 662 African-American sixth and seventh graders. While about a third of the abstinence-only group started having sex within the next two years, nearly half of the students in the other classes became sexually active. The fact that this many eighth and ninth graders are having sex is alarming in any case!

Judith Vogtli, director of ProjecTruth, an abstinence program run under the auspices of Catholic Charities of Buffalo, N.Y., told Catholic News Service that she liked the new study, because it directly compared the effectiveness of different sex education approaches.

Vogtli said she is not afraid of more research in this area, because people in the field know anecdotally that their programs work.

Federal programs are in jeopardy

The problem is that abstinence-only programs at the federal and state levels are in jeopardy. The Obama Administration announced in 2009 that it planned to cut more than $170 million in annual federal funding for abstinence programs. Instead, the administration said it was launching a $144 million pregnancy prevention initiative that would only fund programs that have been scientifically proven to work.

It seems as if the abstinence-only programs have proven to work. Vogtli urges people concerned about cuts to abstinence programs to visit her program’s Web site ( to get information on writing to lawmakers to urge them to reinstate federal funding for abstinence education.

“There needs to be public outrage about this — as there was with health care,” she said. Youth who could benefit from these programs should not be “political pawns,” she said.

State law would change sex education programs

In Wisconsin, the state legislature recently passed the so-called “Healthy Youth Act,” which requires the state’s public schools to to teach a comprehensive sex education curriculum that includes information on contraception — if the schools decide to offer any kind of sex education program.

Currently, some public school districts in Wisconsin offer an abstinence-only curriculum which steers away from discussing birth control or contraception. Some districts, such as West Allis-West Milwaukee, offer a two-track model with one that is strictly abstinence based. That would supposedly not be allowed under the proposed legislation, if it is signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle.

Teaching about sexuality

Planned Parenthood and other advocates of the “Healthy Youth Act” believe that teaching only about abstinence is leading to a higher rate of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The results of the recent study show that is not necessarily true. However, Planned Parenthood’s underlying premise seems to be that teenagers will be engaging in sexual activity, so let’s teach them how to have sex more safely.

Do we use the same tactic when we’re teaching children about such things as smoking, drugs, or alcohol?  No. I think most teachers and parents would argue that they teach teenagers NOT to start using them at all.

The same thing goes for sexuality, with some differences. Parents and teachers must talk with young people about how our sexuality is a beautiful gift from God. They should emphasize the importance of acting responsibly, encouraging young people to abstain from sexual activity until they are old enough to handle it in a committed relationship. For Catholics, this means with the blessing of marriage.

Abstinence-only programs have proven effective. We have to urge our lawmakers at the state and federal levels to continue to support abstinence programs to help keep our youth truly healthy — and holy!