Washington Watch

What’s the next move in abstinence-only efforts?

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

The presidential election of George W. Bush might hail a significant change in the direction of U.S. policy to prevent teen pregnancy. Bush made abstinence promotion a prominent feature of his presidential campaign and promised that he would, as president, "elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent priority" by dramatically increasing federal funding for abstinence-only education programs. Bush also vowed that his administration would spend at least as much each year on promoting abstinence education as it does on providing contraceptive services to teen-agers.

In 2000, family planning opponents in Congress secured a significant down payment on this effort as part of the annual budget process, when Congress created a new abstinence-only education program funded at $50 million over two years. This new program, funded through an earmark in the maternal and child health block grant for Special Projects of Regional and National Significance (SPRANS), will provide $20 million this year and $30 million next year for community-based abstinence education programs (CBAE).

The SPRANS-CBAE program becomes the third federal program devoted to funding abstinence-only education. The first and oldest program is the 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), sponsored by opponents of Title X to "promote chastity and self-discipline among teen-agers" rather than provide them with contraceptive services. Over time, however, social and religious conservatives distanced themselves from AFLA. With no major constituency championing the program, the funding level for abstinence-only education under AFLA has remained low at $9 million per year.

Disillusioned with AFLA, conservative lawmakers instead found themselves reinvigorated by a little-debated provision included in the 1996 welfare reform law that resulted in the creation of a second federal program supporting abstinence-only education. Unlike AFLA, which initially targeted premarital sex, the welfare law funds education programs that preach that sexual abstinence is the only acceptable form of behavior outside of marriage for people of any age. The welfare law provides $50 million in annual funding to the states for five years. For every $4 they receive, states must spend $3, bringing the total amount spent annually under this program up to approximately $90 million.

Additionally, the welfare law contains a very restrictive definition of abstinence-only education that now also applies to funds allocated through the AFLA and SPRANS-CBAE programs. According to this eight-point definition, programs that receive federal abstinence funding must exclusively teach that "sexual activity outside of marriage may have harmful psychological and physical effects," and that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity." The provision of information about contraception beyond failure rates is prohibited. Taking into account all three federal programs, total state and federal funding tied to this restrictive definition will total almost $120 million this year alone.

Funding is up 3,000%

The recent surge in funding for abstinence-only education — up some 3,000% since 1996 — occurred despite a lack of information about of sexuality education policies at the local level, what is being taught to students in the classroom, or how teachers, parents, and students view such education. Yet research published within the past year now fills in many of those gaps.

• Among the seven in 10 public school districts that have a districtwide policy to teach sexuality education, the vast majority (86%) require that abstinence be promoted, either as the preferred option for teen-agers (51%) or as the only option outside of marriage (35%). Only 14% have a comprehensive policy that addresses abstinence as one option in a broader education program designed to prepared adolescents to become sexually healthy adults.1

• Almost two-thirds of school districts across the nation allow discussion about the benefits of contraception. One-third of districts prohibit such discussion entirely or stress that contraceptives are ineffective in protecting against unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).1

• In 1999, 23% of public school sexuality education teachers taught abstinence as the only way of preventing pregnancy and STDs, compared with 2% in 1988. While some topics — HIV and other STDs, abstinence, correct condom use, and how to resist peer pressure to have intercourse — are being taught earlier than they were a decade ago, most are still taught less often and in later grades than teachers think they should be.2

• Compared to 1988, teachers are much less likely today to cover birth control, abortion, how to obtain contraceptive and STD services, and sexual orientation. In fact, one in four teachers are currently told not to teach about birth control.2

• At least three in four parents say that children should receive sex education in school that covers birth control, abortion, and sexual orientation. Similar percentages say that such issues should be presented in a balanced way that represents different societal viewpoints.3

• Young males are less likely than females to receive reproductive health education, and males are also less likely to receive such education before their first intercourse. Overall, one in three young men receive no formal sexuality education before their first intercourse.4


1. Landry DJ, Kaeser L, Richards CL. Abstinence promotion and the provision of information about contraception in public school district sexuality education policies. Fam Plann Perspect 1999; 31:280-286.

2. Darroch JE, Landry DJ, Singh S. Changing emphasis in sexuality education in U.S. public secondary schools, 1988-1999. Fam Plann Perspect 2000; 34:204-211, 265.

3. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Sex Education in America. Menlo Park, CA; 2000.

4. Lindberg LD, Ku L, Sonenstein F. Adolescents’ reports of reproductive health education, 1988 and 1995. Family Plann Perspect 2000; 34:220-226.