Is Sex Ed Working?

Lawmakers renew call to eliminate funding for abstinence-only education.


March 24, 2008— -- Concern over sex education is alive and well in the nation's capital.

The political and ethical debate over what to teach teenagers about sex is being reinvigorated after a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease. Now some say the study, the first of its kind, reveals why it's so important to teach teens not to have sex at all; others argue that the study proves that federally funded abstinence-only education isn't working.

Stoking the fire, a study published in the April edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health found that those who received comprehensive sex education were 50 percent less likely to become pregnant than those who received abstinence-only education. The study also found that those who received comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to become pregnant than those who received no sex education at all.

"I do think that there's strong evidence that comprehensive sex education is more effective at preventing teen pregnancies," said Pamela Kohler, lead author of the study and program manager at the University of Washington's Center for AIDS and STD. "I think we pretty much debunked the myth that comprehensive sex education causes teenagers to have sex."

In Washington, D.C., however, the debate continues to be politicized.

On March 20, 76 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the House panel that considers federal funding levels, arguing that the government's abstinence-only education program should be eliminated.

The majority of government money for abstinence-only education comes from a program established in 2001 under President George W. Bush. Money for that program, which is given directly to state and local groups, has increased from $20 million to $113 million per year. A smaller pool of money that is divvied out to states to promote abstinence-only education was created under President Bill Clinton in 1996. Seventeen states have started refusing that money, some citing the lack of evidence that abstinence programs work.

But the Family Research Council said the CDC study illustrates why abstinence education is crucial.

"The risk-avoidance or sexual abstinence-until-marriage strategy must be adopted to reverse the STD epidemic," said Moira Gaul, the Family Research Council's director of women's and reproductive health, in a statement.

"Abstinence education is increasingly providing an efficacious and holistic approach to protect our young people's current and future health," she said.

But the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Cecile Richards, said "this abstinence-only education has really silenced teachers and has left kids completely in the dark."

Beyond the Beltway, medical professionals such as Dr. Kristine Zanotti, a gynecologic oncology physician at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said the information teens receive is extremely varied.

"Some of them are remarkably well-informed, but some of them aren't," Zanotti said. "Until there are resources put towards comprehensive programs, much of this care is kind of piecemeal."

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