Truth and consequences: the abstinence-only education debate

The debate on how best to teach youth about sex polarizes the nation. Everyone wants to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease – and everyone agrees that abstinence would do that. But parents, medical professionals, religious groups and policy-makers are locked in fierce debate about what information to include in public schools’ sex education programs. Religious and social conservatives support the federal government’s continued funding of abstinence-only sex education programs and consider this method the best way to reduce teen pregnancy. Major medical associations, health professionals and other religious groups generally support what’s known as comprehensive sex education, which includes teaching about contraception as well as abstinence. Most surveys show that parents and teens prefer comprehensive sex education. Keys to the debate are the effectiveness and accuracy of programs and whether abstinence-only instruction imposes religious beliefs on public school students.

Both sides claim credit for falling teen pregnancy rates, yet the United States still has the highest teen pregnancy rate among developed nations, and rates are highest among minorities. Both sides also acknowledge that the success of sex education has dire consequences for individual teens and for society.


Why it matters

Moral and religious values are central to the sex education debate, and both sides have found allies among religious groups. Studies show that teens who are involved in congregations are less likely to have sex or become pregnant. The cost to society is significant. Young mothers are more likely to have babies who die, to drop out of school, end up on welfare or in low-paying jobs, and to have children with health and learning problems.

A jump in America’s teen birth rate in 2006 – after 14 years of declines – sharpened the debate over sex education in the nation’s schools. The increase, reported Dec. 5, 2007, renewed calls from some quarters to curtail federal funding for abstinence-only education programs, which were strongly promoted by the Bush administration. Others, however, said the new data showed a need to emphasize the values promoted by such programs.

No one disputes that abstinence would reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. But parents, medical professionals, religious groups and policy-makers have been locked in fierce debate about the effectiveness and accuracy of sex education programs that focus exclusively on abstinence. Whether such programs impose religious beliefs on public school students is another element of disagreement.

In one study of middle school students, research has shown for the first time that abstinence-only sex education programs can help delay sexual activity. The study followed 662 black students in urban middle schools and found that among those who participated in a weekend abstinence-only class, a third had sex within 24 months. Half had sex after general health classes or classes teaching safe sex only, while 42 percent had sex after comprehensive sex education classes involving both abstinence and safe sex. The research appeared in the February 2010 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

At about the same time, a separate study revealed that after more than a decade of declining rates, the pregnancy rate among girls ages 15 to 19 rose 3 percent between 2005 and 2006. The teen abortion rate also crept up for the first time in more than a decade between these same two years, rising 1 percent, according to the study by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit research group. Some experts attributed the rise to $150 million in federal funding for sex education programs emphasizing abstinence only.

The findings came as the Obama administration was cutting federal funding for abstinence-only programs and starting a pregnancy-prevention initiative that funds programs based on whether scientific studies have shown they are effective.

Religious and moral belief informs much of the debate over how best to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

  • “ACLU of Massachusetts v. Secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services”

    ACLU of Massachusetts v. Secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: The ACLU filed a 2005 lawsuit against the U.S. government, accusing it of financing the religious activities of Silver Ring Thing, a national program that provides abstinence-only education. In 2002, the state of Louisiana settled a lawsuit in which the ACLU asked it to stop funding abstinence-only programs with religious content.

  • “States Abstain From Federal Sex Ed Money”

    A story. The U.S. government continues to increase funding for abstinence-only education and requires states to teach abstinence only in order to receive funds. In November 2005, Maine joined California and Pennsylvania in rejecting thousands of federal dollars in favor of teaching comprehensive sex education.

  • SIECUS: A History

    The History of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. Read a history of abstinence-only sex education and government funding from the National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education.

  • Family Values, Courts, and Culture War: The Case of Abstinence-Only Sex Education

    The Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy’s analysis of ACLU of Massachusetts v. Leavitt.

  • “Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed Funds Cut Off by Kaine”

    A Nov. 13, 2007 Washington Post piece on the former governor of Virginia cutting funding for abstinence education programs.


  • The Twilight book series

    A sensationally popular book series about the love between a vampire and a human. The Mormon author, Stephanie Meyer, infuses her books with a number of religious oriented values, especially in regards to abstinence.

    The Twilight book series, a teen sensation thanks to the films, emphasizes abstinence, although this love story involves a vampire who must abstain from sex with his human sweetheart for her own preservation. This Christian Science Monitor story discusses the value placed on abstinence in the story.

Questions for Reporters

  • What is the content of public school sex education programs in your area? Have abstinence-only programs increased?
  • What groups are involved in the sex education debate?
  • Have teen pregnancy rates in your area dropped, as they have nationally? Among what groups? What factors are cited?
  • What is the financial and social cost of teen pregnancies to your community?
  • What do students, parents, teachers, counselors, health professionals and clergy say is the most effective way to reduce teen pregnancy? Do parents and students think sex education is best taught at school, at home or through a place of worship?
  • Are congregations providing sex education to members? What is the content?
  • Are the groups that provide abstinence-only sex education in public schools in your area religious or secular? How much has their funding increased in the past three years?
  • Have there been concerns that abstinence-only programs bring a religious message into schools? What groups are working to prevent that from happening?





  • Evaluation of Abstinence Education Programs Funded Under Title V, Section 510

    A backgrounder on abstinence-only sex education programs. Results, delayed since 2004, were eventually released 2006. The backgrounder is provided by Mathematica, a social policy research firm.

  • First-Year Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs

    The U.S. government report on the first-year impact of four abstinence-only education programs.

  • Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs

    In January 2006, Journal of Adolescent Health published a review of U.S. sex education policies and programs, concluding that the government’s push for abstinence-only education is “morally problematic” and threatens teens’ human rights to “health, education and life.”

  • “Teen sex increased after abstinence program; Texas study finds no impact on sexual behavior”

    Reports on a research study that showed that abstinence-only sex education had no impact on the sexual behavior of Texas public school students.

  • “America’s Adults and Teens Sound Off About Teen Pregnancy”

    This survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that 94 percent of adults and 92 percent of teens believe it is important that society give teens a strong message not to have sex until they are at least out of high school. Six in 10 teens and three-quarters of adults wish teens were getting more information about abstinence and contraception rather than just one or the other. And 34 percent of teens say their own morals, values, religious beliefs and concerns about their future influence their decisions about sex more than concerns about pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

  • “Sex Education in America”

    A January 2004 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, National Public Radio and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, found that 15 percent of Americans want abstinence-only sex education taught in schools, and 46 percent want abstinence taught along with contraception. Only 7 percent said they did not think sex education should be taught in schools.

  • “Abortion and Rights of Terror Suspects Top Court Issues”

    • A poll released Aug. 3, 2005, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 78 percent of Americans favor allowing public schools to provide students with birth control information while 76 percent believe schools should teach teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage. Solid majorities in every major religious group said schools should be allowed to provide students with information on birth control methods, but 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants were opposed. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 83 percent said schools should offer birth control information and 75 percent said schools should teach teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage.

  • “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs”

    The full report by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on the effectiveness of four abstinence-education programs. According to the study, released in April 2007, participants “were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.”

  • “Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact”

    An Advocates for Youth report that looks at the period from 1998-2003.

  • “Abortion and Birth Control”

    The Web site has a variety of polls on abortion.

  • The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Education

    The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provides a resource page on issues relating to religion and public schools, such as the evolution debate.


News Articles & Transcripts

National sources

See a ReligionLink tip, “Texas textbook vote has national implications,” for national and regional sources engaged in debates over how sexual education is taught in public schools.

Government and academia

  • John B. Jemmott III

    The University of Pennsylvania professor who led the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine study. He says it’s now possible to assert that abstinence-only education can be effective, although the journal published an editorial with the study cautioning that public policy should not be based on the results of a single study alone. In a article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jemmott also cautioned against using the results of his study to score easy political points.

  • Stephanie Ventura

    Stephanie Ventura heads the reproductive statistics branch of the National Center for Health Statistics.

For abstinence-only education: General

  • Abstinence Educators’ Network

    A resource for abstinence educators at the junior high and high school levels.

    Contact: 513-398-9801.
  • LeAnna Benn

    A national director of Teen-Aid, a nonprofit organization started in 1981 to try to reduce teen pregnancies. The group, based in Spokane, Wash., believes the best method is abstinence education. Its Web site lists laws and statistics pertaining to sexuality, education and government funding for all 50 states.

    Contact: 509-482-2868.
  • Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney Jr.

    An obstetrician/gynecologist, is founder and chairman of the nonprofit Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which worked on pro-abstinence programs with the Bush administration and faith-based groups.

    Contact: 512-328-6268.
  • National Abstinence Education Association

    Offers research and more at its Web site. Valerie Huber is executive director.

  • Shepherd Smith

    President and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Youth Development, which promotes a risk avoidance message that includes sexual abstinence.

    Contact: 703-433-1640.
  • Leslee Unruh

    Founder and president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

    Contact: 605-335-3643.
  • Robert Rector

    Robert Rector is a senior research fellow for domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. He says abstinence is the only solution to teen pregnancy.

For abstinence-only education: Religious

  • Suzanne Bowdey

    Senior writer and editor for the Family Research Council.  Her previous jobs have included serving as communications director for the Best Friends Foundation, an inner-city abstinence program.

    Contact: 202-393-2100.
  • Andrea Lafferty

    Executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, a lobbying group dedicated to promoting Bible-based values in the nation’s laws.

    Contact: 202-547-8570.
  • Beverly LaHaye

    Beverly LaHaye is founder and chairman of the Concerned Women for America, a conservative group that opposes same-sex marriage.

  • David Stevens

    Dr. David Stevens is chief executive officer of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, the nation’s largest faith-based organization for doctors. It is based in Bristol, Tenn.

  • True Love Waits

    A ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. It is an international campaign to keep teens and college students abstinent until marriage. Since its inception in 1993, more than a million teens have signed covenant cards promising to be abstinent until marriage.

  • Susan Wills

    Assistant director for education and outreach in the pro-life office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which promotes abstinence-only education.

    Contact: 202-541-3070.
  • Life Action Ministries

    Life Action Ministries is a non-profit organization founded in 1971 by Del Fehsenfeld Jr. that works to promote their religion through conferences, retreats and resources. It has conducted over 900 crusades in churches and cities throughout North America.

For comprehensive sex education: General

For comprehensive sex education: Religious

Regional Sources

In the Northeast

  • Melissa Deckman

    Melissa Deckman is professor of political science and public affairs at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. Her specialties include religion and politics and women and politics. She wrote School Board Battles: The Christian Right in Local Politics (Georgetown University Press, 2004) and “Christian Right School Board Candidates” for the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics (Facts on File, 2003) and co-wrote Women With a Mission: Gender, Religion and the Politics of Women Clergy.

  • Susan D. Rose

    Susan D. Rose is a professor of sociology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. She wrote “Christian Fundamentalism and Education in the United States” for the book Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family and Education (University of Chicago Press, 1997), which includes a section on Christian fundamentalism and public education. She also wrote the article “The Sexual Politics of the Religious Right: Sex-Ed and the Public Schools” for the Journal of Religion & Education (1996) and Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan: Evangelical Schooling in America (Routledge, 1990).

  • Nancy Faust Sizer

    Nancy Faust Sizer is a teaching a course on school reform at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. She was an adjunct lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She co-wrote The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract.

  • Janice Irvine

    A sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States.

  • Richard Parker

    Professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.

  • Jason Burtt

    Directs the nondenominational group “Silver Ring Thing,” based just outside Pittsburgh, Pa. The group uses comedy, drama, music videos and testimonials to promote abstinence in live events each year throughout the country.

    Contact: 412-424-2400.

In the South

  • Cheryl Kirk-Duggan

    Cheryl Kirk-Duggan is a professor of theology and women’s studies at the Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, N.C. She can discuss the current celebration of Kwanzaa in black communities and congregations in the South.

  • Eugene F. Provenzo Jr.

    Eugene F. Provenzo Jr. is a professor of education at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. He wrote Religious Fundamentalism and American Education: The Battle for the Public Schools (State University of New York Press, 1990).

  • Mathew D. Staver

    Mathew D. Staver is founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties education and legal defense organization in Orlando, Fla., that focuses on freedom of speech and religious freedom.

  • Christopher G. Ellison

    Christopher G. Ellison is professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the author of several publications involving faith and families and lists marriage as among his areas of expertise. He has also written about religious influences on the environmental movement.

  • Melinda Bollar Wagner

    A professor of anthropology at Radford University in Radford, Va. She wrote God’s Schools: Choice and Compromise in American Society.

  • Stephen Nagy

    An associate professor and program director of public health at Western Kentucky University. He is an expert on teen issues, including sex education.

In the Midwest

  • Fritz Detwiler

    Fritz Detwiler is a professor of religion and philosophy at Adrian College in Adrian, Mich. He wrote Standing on the Premises of God: The Christian Right’s Fight to Redefine America’s Public Schools (New York University Press, 1999).

  • Martha May McCarthy

    Martha May McCarthy is a professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. She is an expert on religion and public education and wrote “Religious Influences in Public Education: Political and Judicial Developments” in Educational Forum (2000) and “People of Faith as Political Activists in Public Schools” in Education and Urban Society (1996).

  • David Sikkink

    David Sikkink is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He wrote the article “Who Gives to the Poor? The Role of Religious Tradition and Political Location on the Personal Generosity of Americans Toward the Poor” for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1998).

  • Jeffrey P. Moran

    An associate professor of history at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and author of Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century.

  • W. LaVome Robinson

    A psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago. She is an expert on teen pregnancy and adolescent violence. She has conducted a large study on the effectiveness of school-based health clinics.

  • Brian Wilcox

    Director of the Center on Children, Families and the Law and a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska. He reported on research findings that deal with both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education.

  • Michael Polite

    Assistant pastor at Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nashville, Tenn., which collaborated with several other local Adventist churches on a recent “purity ball.”

    Contact: 615-227-1838.

In the West

  • Thomas Holman

    Thomas Holman is a professor of marriage, family and human development at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He wrote “The Teaching of Non-marital Sexual Abstinence and Members’ Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors: The Case of Latter-Day Saints” for the Review of Religious Research.