Report finds no evidence that abstinence-only counseling prevents teen sex, pregnancy, disease

Wednesday, April 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ There still is no evidence whether programs that push sexual abstinence prevent teen sex, pregnancy or disease, the government reported, as Congress debates whether to renew an abstinence-only initiative.

These programs have multiplied in the five years since Congress directed almost half a billion dollars to the effort, but an evaluation aimed at determining whether they work will have no definitive results for a few years, said an interim report released Tuesday.

The report found the programs offer teens a variety of activities, although they also have trouble getting parents and local schools involved.

It also found that, despite claims by advocates, no reliable evidence exists whether the programs work.

``Most studies of abstinence education programs have methodological flaws that prevent them from generating reliable estimates of program impacts,'' the report said.

The abstinence-only initiative, created in the 1996 welfare overhaul, has caused heated debate because it bars any discussion of condoms or birth control other than to explain their limitations.

Congress is deliberating whether to renew the program for five more years, as U.S. President George W. Bush wants, or to allow the money to be spent on a broader range of activities. Several Democrats said at a House hearing Tuesday they were disturbed by the program, but most Republicans defended it.

Given the restrictions, states across the country debated whether to take the abstinence-only money. Eventually every state took the money, although California later dropped out.

In 1999, about half of high school students and nearly two-thirds of graduating seniors reported having had sex. That's a small drop from earlier years, but the report cited a lack of evidence that the abstinence-only programs were responsible for the decline.

The report, written by independent researchers who are evaluating the initiative, also found:

_Programs incorporated many messages beyond sexual abstinence. These included building self-esteem, aspiring to healthy marriages, decision-making skills, withstanding peer pressures and developing goals. There were weekend gatherings, essay contests, family retreats and door prizes at school dances.

_Many programs try to bridge the gap in parent-child communication by trying to engage parents in programs and trying to get teens to feel more comfortable talking to their parents about sex. There's been little success.

``Despite widespread parent enthusiasm for programs, getting more than a small fraction actively involved has proven to be a major challenge for virtually all programs,'' the report said.

_Establishing partnerships with schools is difficult, both because of competing priorities and debate over sex education policies.

On Capitol Hill, a House Commerce subcommittee debated whether to renew the program, with the full committee scheduled to vote on it Wednesday.

Several Republicans said it makes sense to bar discussion of birth control if programs are stressing that abstaining from sex is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

``We have a duty to ensure we are not sending mixed messages to our youth,'' said Rep. Joseph Pitts.

Others said teen-agers can sort it out and advocated programs that encourage abstinence but also teach about birth control in case kids have sex anyway.

``Why can't we tell kids the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?'' asked Rep. Jim Greenwood, who said he wants his two teen-age daughters to be taught about abstinence and contraception. ``Why can't we trust kids?''

Rep. Sherrod Brown, said the states should be allowed to decide what their programs contain, noting that Republicans support state flexibility for other programs.

``When it comes to an issue like abstinence-only education, it's somehow OK for ... the federal government to put a choke hold on the states,'' he said. ``Sometimes we want states' rights. Other times, when it doesn't serve our purpose, we don't.''