The debate over what role the educational system should play in sex education has raged since sex ed programs built around abstinence were first put into practice in 1996. Today, federally funded programs are required to teach that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and that a monogamous marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.
Schools that receive funds are also barred from providing more comprehensive information on contraception or safer sex practices to prevent STDs -- even if nonfederal funds are used for that purpose.
"Since 1996, over $1.5 billion in U.S. tax dollars have been spent on abstinence-only until marriage programs and without having any impact," Conley said. "Governors are paying attention to this huge waste of public money. That's why 25 states, including Alaska -- prior to Gov. Palin's term -- have withdrawn from federal funding under the Title V abstinence-only program."
Wasilla High School, one of the schools that Bristol Palin attended, is one of the country's many schools that promotes an abstinence-based sexual education curriculum. A message left with the school was not returned. But on Tuesday, the Boston Herald reported that Principal Dwight Probasco said the school's sex ed program pushes abstinence, and that the school is barred from distributing contraception.
But Unruh says that the programs cannot necessarily be blamed in the care of Bristol Palin.
"To say that this young woman was given information on abstinence, we can't know that," she said. "If she was, it should have worked. But people make mistakes."
Those on both sides of the issue claim to have research on their side. Proponents of comprehensive sex education for teens point to a study known as the Mathematica study, which suggests that abstinence-only methods are ineffective. Unruh calls the study flawed, noting that the research was performed using a population of teens already at high risk for sexual activity and pregnancy.
Still, other studies also suggest that comprehensive sex education -- which proponents note encourages both abstinence and safe sex if sex occurs -- is more effective than its more abstinence-heavy counterpart.
"There is strong evidence that implementing comprehensive programs can achieve some of the goals of both those who strongly believe young people should abstain from sex and and those who believe young people should use contraception if they do have sex," said Doug Kirby, a research scientist who specializes in studying the effects of sex education on teens.
"On the other hand, we must also recognize that comprehensive sex education programs are not a cure-all," he said. "They reduce sexual risk-taking by about one-third. This is much better than nothing."
Kirby adds that while the Mathematica study and two other studies suggest that abstinence-only programs have little if any effect on sexual behavior, he notes that other research shows very weak evidence that one or two of the abstinence programs used today may delay teens' initiation of sex.