Safe-Sex Programs Don't Increase Activity

Sex education and other programs that tell teenagers how to avoid pregnancy and AIDS do not encourage them to experiment and in some cases discourage it, a review of some 250 studies found.

The review, sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, identified a handful of programs that have succeeded in reducing teen pregnancy, including a handful that talk straight to teens about sex and a couple that focus on community service, giving teens constructive alternatives.

There remains no evidence about whether "abstinence-only" programs, a favorite of conservatives, are effective, the review said, even as the Bush administration proposes an increase in federal funding for them. A national evaluation of a $250 million abstinence program created by the 1996 welfare law is now under way, but results are not available.

Abstinence, Birth Control Message Not Mixed

Backers of these programs believe that talking about the benefits of birth control while encouraging abstinence sends a mixed message, but the report released today disagrees.

"The overwhelming weight of evidence shows that sex education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity," concludes the report, "Emerging Answers," written by researcher Douglas Kirby, a senior researcher at ETR Associates in Scotts Valley, Calif.

Four years ago, Kirby conducted a similar review of studies about teen pregnancy prevention and concluded that almost none of the programs that had been evaluated made a difference. This time, he reports, the findings are more optimistic.

Teen pregnancy, abortion and birth rates have been falling since 1991, and birth rates are now at their lowest level recorded, with about 50 out of every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 giving birth in 1999, a 20 percent drop since 1991.

Experts point out that teen sexual activity has dropped as use of condoms increased — both largely due to fear of AIDS. Still, communities often struggle when trying to create programs to reduce their rates.

Kirby's report found eight programs that showed evidence of success: five sex education programs; two community service programs that included group discussions; and one intensive program that combined sex education, health care and activities such as tutoring.

Short-Term Programs Not Effective

All the effective sex education programs employed what's sometimes called "abstinence-plus." They delivered a "clear message" that abstaining from sex is the safest choice for teens, but those who are sexually active should protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The report, which examined only programs that had been scientifically evaluated, also concluded:

Family planning clinics probably prevent many teen pregnancies, although there is little evidence to prove it. Some studies have found that clinics were able to increase use of birth control by providing top-quality educational materials, discussing the patient's sexual and contraceptive behavior and sending a clear message about what works.

Programs that give away condoms at school have produced mixed results in reducing sex and pregnancy, although studies have consistently shown that these programs do not increase sexual activity.

Generally, short-term programs of any stripe were not effective.