The New Abstinence-Education Study Is Good News. So Why Are Liberals Freaking Out?

The first peer-reviewed study to show abstinence education to be successful was published yesterday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. And, to put it succinctly, the liberal blogosphere is not thrilled.

“According to this study, abstinence-only education might work,” quips one blogger at Feministing. “And the operative word here is might, as in, sometimes, maybe, coupled with other strategies or sometimes never.” The Guttmacher Institute does a thorough, point-by-point takedown of the study, noting that it “essentially leaves intact the significant body of evidence showing that abstinence-only-until-marriage programming that met previous federal guidelines is ineffective.” And at AlterNet—well, you can basically figure out its take from the headline Why We Should Disregard a New Study Showing Abstinence Ed Works. The general meme circulating on liberal blogs has basically been: this study may indicate abstinence-only education worked in one instance, but it definitely does not vindicate Bush-era policies.

But here’s the thing: the study authors never claimed that they were out to do that. They never said they found a cure-all for teen pregnancy. And they weren't out to replicate the programs that proved so ineffective during the past eight years. Instead, the study authors looked at African-American middle-school students in the Northeast who enrolled in an abstinence-only program (no instruction on contraceptives) and were taught, sans moral or religious arguments, that they should delay sex until they were ready. Marriage was notably left out of it.

The students in this program were more likely to delay sex in the two years after the program, as opposed to those who enrolled in no program or those who were instructed in safe sex. The study says nothing about whether their program would have (or should have) received federal funding under Bush’s scheme, which required teaching “abstinence until marriage.” But lead study author John B. Jemmott, a well-respected sex-education researcher, was specific to caution against taking the study as a policy prescription, saying, “Policy should not be based on just one study, but an accumulation of empirical findings from several well-designed, well-executed studies.” 

And in the end, opponents of this study are pursuing a debate that does not even matter. With the teen-pregnancy rate now on the rise for the first time in a decade, is it really worth spending our time ruminating about whether a sex-education program would have received funding under now-defunct guidelines? Maybe we should be excited about the fact that we found another way to help prevent teen pregnancy. Perhaps we could encourage Obama to spend part of his $25 million fund for experimental programs to see if the results here could be replicated. The smartest reaction I came across was from Monica Rodriguez at SEICUS, an organization that supports comprehensive sex education. She told The Washington Post that "one of the things that's exciting about this study is that it says we have a new tool to add to our repertoire.” (AlterNet seems to get that, too—it now has a new article called "These Abstinence Program Aren't Those Abstinence Programs.")

The generally negative reaction from the left really gets at how incredibly polarized the sex-education debate has become, to the point where supporters of comprehensive sex education can barely mumble a word of praise for a successful program. Sex ed doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. But any word in favor of abstinence, the thinking seems to go, is a word against comprehensive sex education.  And when such evidence comes in, the immediate reaction is to attack, even when it makes a little more sense to celebrate the fact that we’re a little bit closer to understanding how to prevent teen pregnancy.

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