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‘Groundbreaking’ abstinence study should change federal policy, some say

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Conservative groups are urging the Obama administration and Democratic leaders to take a second look at abstinence education after a federally funded landmark study showed that such programs were more successful than comprehensive sex education in stopping teen sex.

The study, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in the February journal of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, should be a game-changer in the debate over teens and sex, the groups say.

It followed 662 African American sixth and seventh graders in urban middle schools over two years and found that 33.5 percent of those in programs promoting only abstinence had had sex by the end of the 24 months, compared to 48.5 percent of teens in a control group. The other two programs studied — one focusing only on safer sex and the other mixing an abstinence message with a safer sex message — did about as well as the control group in stopping teen sex.

President Obama axed Bush-era abstinence programs from his budget submitted last year and conservatives now are encouraging him to place such funding back in the budget this year.

“If we are serious about reaching teens with the skills they need to resist sexual activity, the findings supporting the effectiveness of abstinence education should not be ignored,” Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said.

The fact that the study received federal funding and wasn’t backed by any conservative-leaning groups is significant. In fact, the authors — John B. Jemmott III and Loretta S. Jemmott of the University of Pennsylvania and Geoffrey T. Fong of the University of Waterloo — plainly state that other sex education approaches should not be abandoned and that studies should be conducted to see if abstinence education would have the same positive impact on older teens.

But the authors also argue that, contrary to what many liberals have argued, abstinence education deserves a place at the table.

“The results of this randomized controlled trial are promising,” the authors write. “They suggest that theory-based abstinence-only interventions can have positive effects on adolescents’ sexual involvement. This is important because abstinence is the only approach that is acceptable in some communities and settings in both the United States and other countries.”

The study found that teens who go through abstinence education and who do have sex are no less likely to use condoms than those in the other programs. That finding counters an often-made objection by liberals who argue that abstinence education reduces condom use.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called the study “groundbreaking” and said it is “unfortunate that this Congress and administration has zeroed out abstinence education” in favor of “sex-ed programs that advocate high-risk sexual behavior.”

“Despite an enormous amount of money going to comprehensive sex-ed programs dating much earlier than abstinence education programs, recent CDC data show that an alarming 40 percent of teen girls who are sexually active are infected with an STD,” Perkins said in a statement. “The government does not promote drug use or underage drinking, and it should not promote high-risk sexual behavior either. The evidence shows clearly that sexual abstinence is the healthiest behavior for youth.”

Richard Ross, cofounder of the True Love Waits Christian abstinence movement, told Baptist Press the study “demonstrates that the invitation to abstinence works best when it is not diluted by other messages.”

“But in the church our approach must be different,” Ross, a professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said. “Helping teenagers consider pros and cons is fine. But their commitment to total life purity is exponentially greater when their primary motivation is the person of Christ. Those who adore Him and welcome the power of His Spirit stand the best chance of coming to their wedding day in innocence.”

Jimmy Hester, cofounder of True Love Waits, said the study simply is “verification of what we have known all along.”

“Promoting abstinence among teenagers makes a difference when it is presented properly,” Hester, who coordinates the True Love Waits program at LifeWay Christian Resources, told BP. “Teenagers can recognize the value of practicing abstinence when they are not subjected to contradictory messages.

“Some adults say to teenagers, ‘Abstinence is good but we know that you are going to be sexually active, so here are ways to physically protect yourself.’ When they make that statement, they compromise the abstinence message,” Hester said. “This study shows that when abstinence is affirmed and presented as the appropriate lifestyle, students will choose to live that way.”

But Hester, like Ross, said the True Love Waits program differs significantly from any abstinence program that would receive federal funding. In fact, the study’s authors said the abstinence program they followed “was not moralistic and did not criticize the use of condoms.”

“True Love Waits calls on teenagers to make a commitment to God, family and friends, future mate and children, and themselves,” Hester said. “These relationships listed in the True Love Waits commitment communicate that sexual abstinence is important physically but also for spiritual, moral and social reasons. And it increases the effectiveness of the commitment to abstinence by providing further encouragement and support for appropriate sexual behavior.”

Nicholas Papas, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the study was important.

“No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants if there’s promise that it achieves the goal of teen pregnancy prevention,” Papas told The Washington Post.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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