Check funding, science of abstinence-only program

By Cynthia Dailard
Senior Public Policy Associate
The Alan Guttmacher Institute
Washington, DC

The increasing federal investment in abstinence-only education is one of the more notable social policy trends of the past decade.

Programs must exclusively promote abstinence and therefore cannot discuss the positive benefits of contraception or condoms, because doing so would purportedly undermine the abstinence message.

Federal funding for abstinence-only education has skyrocketed absent any reliable data supporting its effectiveness. In contrast, a significant body of evaluation research indicates that comprehensive approaches to sex education — which promote abstinence but also provide information about contraception and condoms — can be effective in helping young people to delay sexual activity or reduce teenage pregnancy.1

In 1997, Congress acknowledged the need for a federally funded evaluation of abstinence-only education programs and provided funds to support that effort. That evaluation, however, is more than a year overdue. However, there are two new reports by the Washington, DC-based Advocates for Youth (AFY). The first reviews the findings from the 10 available state evaluations of federally funded abstinence-only programs.2

The analysis found "few short-term benefits and no lasting, positive impact. A few programs showed mild success at improving attitudes and intentions to abstain. No program was able to demonstrate a positive impact on sexual behavior over time."2

The report concludes, "Abstinence-only programs show little evidence of sustained (long-term) impact on attitudes and intentions. Worse, they show some negative impacts on youth’s willingness to use contraception, including condoms, to prevent sexual health outcomes related to sexual intercourse. Importantly, only in one state did any program demonstrate short-term success in delaying the initiation of sex; none of these programs demonstrates evidence of long-term success in delaying sexual initiation among youth exposed to the program or any evidence of success in reducing other sexual risk-taking behaviors among participants."2

The second AFY report analyzed annual data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which collects information on the sexual and other risk behaviors of high school students.3

AFY analyzed trend data for four sexual behaviors and compared changes in teens’ sexual behaviors that took place during 1991-1997 with those in 1999-2003. The former period, according to AFY, "corresponds with the widespread implementation of comprehensive sex education, including HIV prevention programming." In contrast, the latter period covers the first five-year period of federal abstinence-only education.

The four behaviors include: ever had sexual intercourse; had four or more sexual partners during lifetime; currently sexually active; and condom use during last sexual intercourse.

The analysis found that "sexual behaviors that place teens at risk for pregnancy and infection with HIV and [sexually transmitted infections] declined significantly from 1991-1997. From 1999-2003, however, results show little change in these behaviors."

The report notes that the analysis does not prove that a causal relationship exists between federally funded abstinence-only education programs "and the end of significant improvement in adolescent sexual risk-taking behaviors after 1999," but suggests that future research address this question.3


1. Kirby D. Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2001.

2. Hauser D. Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact. Advocates for Youth: Washington, DC; 2004.

3. Advocates for Youth. Trends in Sexual Risk Behaviors Among High School Students — United States, 1991 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003. Washington, DC, 2004.