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Abstinence-only programs might work, study says
"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," said Nicholas Papas, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Several critics of an abstinence-only approach said that the curriculum tested did not represent most abstinence programs. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms.
"There is no data in this study to support the 'abstain until marriage' programs, which research proved ineffective during the Bush administration," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth.
But abstinence supporters disputed that, saying that the new program is equivalent to many other well-designed abstinence curricula that are thorough, tailor their messages to students' ages and provide detailed information.
"For our critics to use marriage as the thing that sets the program in this study apart from federally funded programs is an exaggeration and smacks of an effort to dismiss abstinence education rather than understanding what it is," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association.
The study released Monday involved 662 African American students from four public middle schools in a city in the Northeastern United States. They were randomly assigned to go through one of the following: an eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on teaching safe sex; an eight- or 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching them other ways to be healthy, such as eating well and exercising.
The study involved a series of sessions in which instructors talked to them in small groups about their views about abstinence and their knowledge of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
They also conducted role-playing exercises and brainstorming sessions designed to correct misconceptions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases, encourage abstinence and offer ways to resist pressure to have sex.
Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared with about 52 percent who were taught only safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who learned about other ways to be healthy did.
The abstinence program had no negative effects on condom use, which has been a major criticism of the abstinence approach.
"The take-home message is that we need a variety of interventions to address an epidemic like HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy," said Jemmott, adding that he thinks the program would be equally effective among other age and racial or ethnic groups.
"There are populations that really want an abstinence intervention. They are against telling children about condoms," he said. "This study suggests abstinence programs can be part of the mix of programs that we offer."