Abstinence-only programs based more on wishful thinking than on research

School board elections are seldom paid much attention to in Manitoba; least of all in early August when many Manitobans are trying to make the most of the short summer ahead of the invariably long, dark winter. Yet one previously obscure school board candidate did the seemingly impossible by making a much-ignored suburban school board race into a hot topic of conversation on the most unlikely of days: the Tuesday after the August long weekend.

Candace Maxymowich, a 20-year-old candidate for trustee on the Louis Riel School Division board in southeast Winnipeg, pulled off this feat starting with an early morning Twitter session.

“Personally, I do not support sex education other than abstinence,” she tweeted to Winnipeg residents Zach Fleisher and Ben Brisebois, who sought further details about an earlier Maxymowich tweet in which she referred to “parental rights & the moral integrity of children” as campaign issues.

The tweets that set a sleepy school board campaign on fire.

The tweets that set a sleepy school board campaign on fire.

Less than an hour later, Maxymowich tweeted that “[t]here is research that argues abstinence education is effective.”

By the afternoon, the issue had not only drawn comments from across the Winnipeg Twitter community, but had also become a leading story in the local news, despite Maxymowich’s mid-morning claim that abstinence-only sex education was “not something I’m campaigning on.”

But what exactly does the best available research say about abstinence-only sex education, which, as described by the Guttmacher Institute, “treats abstinence as the only option outside of marriage, with discussion of contraception either prohibited entirely or limited to its ineffectiveness in preventing pregnancy and disease.”

“While sexual abstinence—at least until one is old enough and mature enough to engage in healthy sexual relationships—might be advisable, there is little evidence that the abstinence-only approach is effective,” said a 2002 article in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, which also criticized the approach as “one of the best examples of ideology impeding sound public-health policy.”

“It is understandable why so many groups, in particular conservative religious groups, wish to promote values that they feel are under assault in modern society,” the article continued.

“But the origins of [out-of-wedlock pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, etc.] and other problems of society are much more complex, and denying young people full and accurate information about sex, contraception, and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases not only puts them at needless risk, but also threatens to undermine their trust and respect of some of society’s most important institutions: its schools, health system, and government officials.”

A report written two years later by Advocates for Youth, a U.S. not-for-profit organization that favours sex education, examined evaluations that had been done on abstinence-only programs in 11 states, and found that few of them could claim much success in producing the results their proponents had hoped for:

Evaluation of these 11 programs showed 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. (Page 2)

A study published in 2010 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, meanwhile found some positive effects in a study of more than 600 African-American students in Grades 6 and 7, noting that those who received an abstinence-only “intervention” were less likely to report having had sex in the following three and 24 months than did those in the control group. But the study also observed that there was little knowledge about the intervention’s impact in later years, and that the results “do not mean that abstinence-only intervention is the best approach or that other approaches should be abandoned”.

A research article written by two University of Georgia academics and published in 2011 by PLoS ONE examined the track record of 48 U.S. states. They found that states that pushed abstinence more strongly tended to have higher teenage pregnancy rates, leading them to conclude that “abstinence-only education as a state policy is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.”

Finally, a study published in the Pediatrics journal in 2009 looked back at National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health data on the 289 adolescents who had taken a “virginity pledge” in 1996, and compared them to 645 who did not take the pledge. When researchers followed up five years later, “82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged”. Despite their protestations, the so-called pledgers did not differ much from non-pledgers in their reported pre-marital sexual behaviour, but were “less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage”.

It’s a good thing that abstinence-only sex education is not something that Maxymowich plans to pursue strongly if she is elected to the Louis Riel School Division board in this October’s municipal elections. The findings from elsewhere suggest an abstinence-only policy would largely be a waste of time and effort, expose Winnipeg to widespread ridicule, and represent a triumph of wishful thinking over prudent research in making public policy.

Related: World Bank/United Nations data on adolescent fertility rates by country (births per 1,000 women, aged 15-19). In 2012, there were 14 births for every thousand Canadian women aged 15-19 years. Affluent countries boasting less than half the Canadian rate included Switzerland, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Japan, France, Singapore — and the famously socially liberal Netherlands.

Among English-speaking countries, Ireland did significantly better than Canada (8 per 1,000), and Australia was roughly on par with us (12 per 1,000). New Zealand (25 per 1,000), the U.K. (26 per 1,000) and the U.S. (31 per 1,000) were significantly worse off.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to Abstinence-only programs based more on wishful thinking than on research

  1. Great post, and thanks for providing links to the research. Candace Maxymowich certainly seems to be out of her league, and in a school trustee campaign no less. Debunking such old-fashioned fundamentalist morality is like shooting fish in a barrel, astounding she would campaign with it. Assuming she would also like to see “Intelligent Design” taught in science classes.

    Now she’s indicating that she would not ‘push for it if elected.’ In other words: ‘vote for me, because I won’t support what I truly believe is right.’ She put herself in a no win situation here.

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