Article

Abstinence-only education policies and programs: A position paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine

Department of Population and Family Health, Columbia University, New York, New York, United States
Journal of Adolescent Health (Impact Factor: 2.75). 02/2006; 38(1):83-7. DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.06.002
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Abstinence from sexual intercourse represents a healthy choice for teenagers, as teenagers face considerable risk to their reproductive health from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Remaining abstinent, at least through high school, is strongly supported by parents and even by adolescents themselves. However, few Americans remain abstinent until marriage, many do not or cannot marry, and most initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual behaviors as adolescents. Abstinence as a behavioral goal is not the same as abstinence-only education programs. Abstinence from sexual intercourse, while theoretically fully protective, often fails to protect against pregnancy and disease in actual practice because abstinence is not maintained. Providing "abstinence only" or "abstinence until marriage" messages as a sole option for teenagers is flawed from scientific and medical ethics viewpoints. Efforts to promote abstinence should be based on sound science. Although federal support of abstinence-only programs has grown rapidly since 1996, the evaluations of such programs find little evidence of efficacy in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse. Conversely, efforts to promote abstinence, when offered as part of comprehensive reproductive health promotion programs that provide information about contraceptive options and protection from STIs have successfully delayed initiation of sexual intercourse. Moreover, abstinence-only programs are ethically problematic, being inherently coercive and often providing misinformation and withholding information needed to make informed choices. In many communities, abstinence-only education (AOE) has been replacing comprehensive sexuality education. In some communities, AOE has become the basis for suppression of free speech in schools. Abstinence-only education programs provide incomplete and/or misleading information about contraceptives, or none at all, and are often insensitive to sexually active teenagers. Federally funded abstinence-until-marriage programs discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, as federal law limits the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples. Schools and health care providers should encourage abstinence as an important option for teenagers. "Abstinence-only" as a basis for health policy and programs should be abandoned.

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    • "Because of their developmental, social, and financial state of maturity, adolescents are generally less able than independent adults to deal with the adverse consequences of sexual intercourse should they occur. Contraception, condoms, and other means can mitigate the risks for unintended pregnancy and infection, but there is no disagreement that abstinence is the most efficacious preventive measure [18-22]. Thus, reluctance to proceed beyond providing information to recommending against sexual intercourse in this age group appears inconsistent with practice standards for other behavioral health risk factors and with data on associated harms. "
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    • "Until recently, the United States Congress appropriated funding to support for abstinence until marriage education despite a lack of evidence supporting its efficacy in reducing high risk sexual behaviors (Trenholm et al., 2007; Waxman, 2004), and research supporting the use of comprehensive approaches to sex education (Kirby, Laris, & Rolleri, 2007; Santelli, Ott, Lyon, Rogers, & Summers, 2006; Santelli et al., 2006). Unlike abstinence until marriage education, which emphasizes abstinence as the expected approach to promote sexual and reproductive health in youth, comprehensive sex education programs also provide extensive information on how to prevent unintended pregnancy, STIs, and HIV infection (Santelli, Ott, Lyon, Rogers, Summers, et al., 2006). "
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    • "Eighty-four percent of adolescents and 85% of adults agreed that it should be taught that young people should be married before they have a child. However, abstinence-only education has been the subject of controversy as it does not incorporate contraceptive methods as part of an broad-based approach to adolescent pregnancy prevention (Brindis, 2006; Santelli et al., 2006). "
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