New evidence from the United States suggests abstinence education is a reason why teen pregnancy has fallen to historically low rates. Nearly sixty percent of high school students had never had sex, up from 46% in 1991. Meanwhile, another new report links condom giveaways in schools with increases in teen pregnancy.
This investigation of the impact of the condom distribution programs was published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)—more than twenty years after the fact. It found higher pregnancy rates when students were given condoms in the absence of counseling, which would explain that abstinence is the surest method of protection, along with information about the failure rates of condoms.
The authors write that their findings “suggest that risky sexual behavior may have increased in areas without counseling programs,” while noting that there is “essentially unanimity in the absence of support” within the academic literature for the hypothesis that handing out condoms encourages such behavior.
Nonetheless, the fact that this study was performed so belatedly despite the data being available for a quarter century raises sobering questions about further questions that remain unanswered—and unasked—by the experts.
On a more hopeful note, the NBER paper points out that “teenagers today are less likely to engage in sexual activity and are less likely to become pregnant,” echoing the latest data on risky behavior among teens from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to the American College of Pediatricians, the key message for teens is that abstinence is not only beneficial, but also an attainable goal. Meanwhile, the consequences for sexually active teenagers can be dire: “sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise, as is adolescent depression, sometimes referred to as the emotional STI.”
These problems are not limited to the United States. Globally, the cost of risky sexual behavior among adolescents is enormous: The Lancet recently published a study of the disease burden among youth internationally, and found that “unsafe sex” is the fastest-growing risk factor among 15-24-year-olds.
Both within the U.S. and internationally, political debates continue over how adolescents should be taught about sex. Proponents of controversial “comprehensive sexuality education” curricula frequently claim their approach is “evidence-based” rather than being ideological, and that abstinence education is ineffective. But according to Valerie Huber, president of a U.S.-based organization promoting abstinence, or sexual risk avoidance, this is a “worn-out, disingenuous mantra” based on a selective reading of the “evidence.”
“[I]n this case, ‘science’ has become the pawn of a larger agenda,” writes Huber, describing how the U.S. government used flawed methodology to compile a list of “effective” sex education programs, most of which did not emphasize abstinence.
“Research confirms that [sexual risk avoidance] is a realistic approach to sex education and it offers the healthiest outcomes for youth,” writes Huber, citing the CDC’s findings that teen abstinence continues to rise steadily.
The message that sexual risk avoidance is both realistic and effective was absent from the Lancet Commission on adolescent health and well-being, which mentioned abstinence only to say “abstinence-only education is not recommended.” The Commission, which makes policy recommendations to global leaders, also bluntly calls on them to legalize abortion.