Abstinence Programs Making Inroads

Skeptics Not Lacking, But Alternative Projects Seem Far Worse

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 23, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Proposals in the United States to increase funding for the promotion of abstinence have reignited fights over sex-education programs. The Bush administration has asked Congress for a 33% increase in funding for programs that teach abstinence, the Associated Press reported Jan. 30.



The budget submitted by President George W. Bush asks for a total of $135 million for abstinence-only programs that exclude from their content the promotion of birth control or condoms. During his election campaign Bush promised to give as much money for courses in favor of abstinence as is spent on educating adolescents about the use of contraception.

The number of U.S. teen-agers prepared to commit themselves to abstinence is growing, the Washington Times reported Feb. 3. An estimated 3 million teen-agers have signed pledges since campaigns such as True Love Waits began a few years ago. A number of organizations, some religious-based, some secular, run these campaigns.

The Washington Times quoted a recent study that showed signing a pledge has concrete results for behavior. Columbia University sociologist Peter Bearman interviewed 20,000 teen-agers for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, published in 2000. He found that abstinence pledgers waited, on average, 18 months longer to have sex for the first time than their peers who did not pledge.

Another study, published last year, showed that religion plays an important part in helping teen-agers avoid promiscuity. A survey commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that 39% of teens said that "morals, values and/or religious beliefs" were the most important factors affecting their decision about whether to have sex.

That´s more than double the second most popular answer, concern about sexually transmitted diseases, which was cited by 17% of respondents, the Associated Press reported Sept. 24.

Not everyone is convinced by the abstinence programs, however. One of the strongest opponents is the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood. In a study released last November, "Teen-age Sexual and Reproductive Behavior in Developed Countries: Can More Progress Be Made?," the institute contended that what is really needed in the United States is wider access to family planning and contraceptives.

The study found that U.S. levels of adolescent pregnancy, childbearing and abortion are substantially higher than in most other Western countries. In 2000 the U.S. teen-age birthrate of 49 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 (down about 20% from 1990) was about twice as high as rates in Great Britain and Canada, and five times as high as in Sweden and France.

The Guttmacher Institute proposed that to remedy this situation, teen-agers need easier access to family planning services and less-costly contraceptives.

Is family planning the answer?

In Britain, researchers are not so sure that family planning has worked out after all. In fact, these services may have no positive impact on reducing the rate of pregnancy or abortion among schoolgirls, BBC reported March 4.

The report was published just a few months after a government advisory group on teen pregnancies recommended that children wanting to have sex before age 16 should be able to get contraception at school.

However, a 14-year study into underage pregnancy, published in the Journal of Health Economics, has questioned the effectiveness of such a policy. One of the authors, David Paton, of Nottingham University Business School, said: "We found that as you increase access to family planning services, pregnancy rates for this group either do not change or there is some evidence they go up."

"They certainly don´t decrease which is what the government wants," Paton added. "It seems family planning seems to encourage more people to have sex, which teamed with a high contraceptive failure rate can cancel out any gain."

Figures compiled by the Office of National Statistics for 2000 reveal that 4,382 girls under age 16 had abortions, up 200 on the year before, the London daily Observer reported March 17. Abortions for this group have risen 20% since 1992.

"The availability of the morning-after pill seems to be encouraging risky behavior," Paton commented. "It appears that if people have access to family planning advice they think they automatically have a lower risk of pregnancy."

The study comes at a time when new evidence is coming out on the health dangers associated with both abortion and contraceptives. The British Medical Journal published an article Jan. 19 reporting that women who abort a first pregnancy are at greater risk of subsequent long-term clinical depression compared to women who carry an unintended first pregnancy to term.

The conclusions came from a national study of American youths that began in 1979. In 1992, a subset of 4,463 women were surveyed about depression and pregnancy. A total of 421 women had their first abortion or first unintended delivery between 1980 and 1992.

An average of eight years after their abortions, married women were 138% more likely to be at high risk of clinical depression compared to similar women who carried their unintended first pregnancies to term.

As for contraceptives, even the newer generations of birth-control pills carry health risks. The so-called third-generation pills increase stroke risk and also raise the possibility of developing other blood clots. Dr. Ale Algra, of the University Medical Center in Utrecht, Netherlands, told a meeting of the American Stroke Association that about three women in every 10,000 have a stroke every year, but that number doubles to six a year if they take contraceptive pills.

Algra also said that while his team reported in January that the third-generation pills carried a lower risk of heart attack, another group did a similar study and found a higher risk, Reuters reported Feb. 7.

A more-recent report, this time from contraceptive-pill manufacturers themselves, supports Algra´s warning. An internal study by the drug company Wyeth found that eight in 10,000 women using third-generation pills developed potentially fatal blood clots, the Sunday Times reported March 3.

The report forms part of the evidence presented in a legal action now before London´s High Court. The case is being made on behalf of 104 women whose deaths or illnesses were linked to the pills, which were introduced in the early 1980s. Seven British women died soon after starting to take the pills and a further 97 claim to have suffered damage, including strokes and paralysis.

So, where to now? As Deborah Simmons commented in the Washington Times on Feb. 15, there is a need for more study of abstinence programs in order to accurately measure their effectiveness. But, while abstinence pledges may have their problems, the sex-education programs used in past years have had far worse results.

Under the older programs, "instead of children being taught not to have sex, they were taught how to have sex," commented Simmons. The result was soaring rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease among adolescents. Abstinence education, by comparison, looks like a worthwhile initiative.