January 31, 2005

Study: Texas abstinence plan not working

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS (AP)    Abstinence-only programs like those promoted by the Bush administration don't seem to be working on teenagers in the president's home state, according to a state-sponsored study by Texas A&M University researchers.

The ongoing study, the first evaluation of the abstinence programs across the state, found that students in almost all high school grades were more sexually active after undergoing abstinence education.

Researchers don't believe the programs encouraged teenagers to have sex, only that the abstinence messages did not interfere with customary trends among adolescents.

"We didn't find what many would like for us to find," said A&M researcher Buzz Pruitt, who met with state health authorities last week to discuss the data.

Pruitt cautioned against drawing overarching conclusions from the study, which is incomplete and does have flaws. For example, the study lacks a comparison group, so researchers can't say whether the teenagers would have shown an even greater increase in sexual activity had they not had abstinence education.

But scientists welcome Texas' contribution to a field lacking in solid data.

The federal government will spend $131 million this year on various abstinence-only education programs - $30 million more than was spent in 2004. But many public health experts are concerned that no one really knows what the government is buying.

"We're using a bunch of programs, and we don't know what their effectiveness is," said Mike Young of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Young and his colleagues have developed a curriculum called Sex Can Wait, which is one of the few abstinence programs that has documented at least a short-term influence on teenage behavior.

Among the findings in the Texas study: About 23 percent of the ninth-grade girls in the study already had sexual intercourse before they received any abstinence education, a figure below the national average.

After taking an abstinence course, the number among those same girls rose to 28 percent, a level closer to that of their peers across the state.

Among ninth-grade boys, the percentage who reported sexual intercourse before and after abstinence education remained relatively unchanged. In 10th grade, the percentage of boys who had ever had sexual intercourse jumped from 24 percent to 39 percent after participating in an abstinence program.

Still, public health experts say these and other studies may eventually help fashion abstinence-only approaches that can make a difference. Texas joins about a dozen other states that have evaluated their abstinence education programs.

The A&M study's results are based on a 10-page questionnaire filled out anonymously by junior high and high school students. The study examined five programs in more than two dozen schools.

To be funded as abstinence education, programs cannot provide instruction in birth control, outside "factual information about contraceptive methods, such as the failure rates that are associated with the different methods," according to documents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Among other things, the law also dictates that an abstinence program must have "as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity."

The federal government is paying $4.5 million per year for a large study of several abstinence programs. Interim data that already was supposed to have been released remains unpublished. The final report will be out by 2006, said Harry Wilson, associate commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau.

Lacking objective information about a program's effectiveness, Wilson said, the government looks at other barometers, such as community needs, the educators' experience and ties to the community.

"You do the best you can with what you know," he said.






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