Richard Cohen's column "The Abstinence Candidate" [op-ed, June 24], which criticized Texas Gov. George W. Bush for supporting abstinence programs, was ill-informed and irresponsible. Contrary to what Cohen says, a growing body of empirical evidence shows that abstinence programs work in reducing adolescent sexual activity and unwed teen pregnancies.

For 12 years, Best Friends, a youth development program that teaches abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol, has been helping thousands of adolescent girls gain self-respect through self-restraint in public schools in the District and across the nation. A recent survey of 2,600 adolescent girls (ages 11 to 18) in Best Friends programs in 78 public schools around the country found that 97 percent had not had sex; 96 percent had not used illegal drugs; 79 percent said they wanted to wait until at least after high school graduation to have sex, and 77 percent said they wanted to wait until marriage. Today, more than half of all U.S. teens -- 51 percent -- have not had sex.

Cohen states that with its openness in sexual matters, "Western Europe has a birthrate for teenage women that no celibacy program here could hope to attain -- nine out of 1,000 in France, for instance, seven out of 1,000 in the even more liberated Netherlands." But research on the Best Friends Program cites even better results -- a pregnancy rate of five out of 1,600. And we are citing pregnancy rates, not birthrates.

Cohen's assertion that teens cannot be abstinent is not only wrong but dangerous. Today, our country is experiencing an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, with 3 million teens newly infected each year. Studies show that 35 percent of sexually active teenage girls have had at least one sexually transmitted disease.

Instead of criticizing Bush, Cohen should be commending him and other supporters of abstinence education who understand the dangerous consequences of teen sex and want to help our children stay out of harm's way. It is a message we would expect from a mature, responsible adult and leader.

-- Elayne Glover Bennett and Ann Guthrie Hingston

The writers are, respectively, president and national program director for the Best Friends Foundation.

Richard Cohen may be astonished to learn that a Jewish-Christian tradition of four millennia asserts that premarital sex, a k a fornication, is against God's plan and therefore unholy, that is, sinful.

Job says, "I have made a covenant with my eyes never to look upon a girl. What would be my portion from God above and my heritage from the Almighty on high?" The Talmud (Pessahim 113a) states that God daily blesses the unmarried man who preserves chastity. Jesus says that the man who looks at a woman with lust commits adultery against her. Saint Paul calls fornication wicked a half-dozen times.

Myriad young people through myriad generations have abstained from premarital sex because it is unholy and contrary to the plan of God. In truth, this is the only effective reason for abstinence that can be given to young people. What other motive is sufficient to rein in a flood tide of sexual desire? Certainly not the "maybe" and the "perhaps" and the "possibility" of disappointment, disease or pregnancy.

Please don't be quick to write off "finger waving" as retrograde, benighted and sanctimonious. The Scriptures present God as a father and us as his errant children. His metaphorical finger under my nose may be just what I need.

-- John Martin Egan