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A pair of new scientific reviews conclude that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs (AOUMs) not only fail to protect kids, but also violate their human rights.

Published online yesterday in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the study reviews looked at the use, prevalence, and impact of AOUMs in U.S. classrooms and internationally based on the most up-to-date research in the field. Authored by the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine and a team of researchers from Columbia University, the University of North Carolina, the Guttmacher Institute, and the Children’s National Medical Center at George Washington University, among others, both reviews found that AOUMs have consistently been “a failure” in deterring teens from risky behaviors, and have gobbled up millions of dollars and learning-hours along the way.

Overall, the groups concluded that AOUMs, which are the only form of sexual and reproductive education in a number of U.S. cities and towns, have been ineffective at delaying teen sex or reducing sexual risk behaviors, and often do substantially dis-serve young learners in other ways. According to the expert groups, those ways include violating adolescent human rights, stigmatizing or excluding certain groups therein, reinforcing “harmful” gender stereotypes, withholding medically accurate information, and thereby undermining public health programs.

In a press release from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the researchers explained that such programs frequently ignore LGBTQ+ and other student groups in their framework and culture, and have been “widely rejected by health professionals” for failing to provide useful, science-based information on sexual health practices.

Co-author Leslie Kantor, vice president of Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and an assistant professor of Population and Family Health at Mailman, commented that “Young people have a right to sex education that gives them the information and skills they need to stay safe and healthy.” She continued, “Withholding critical health information from young people is a violation of their rights. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs leave all young people unprepared and are particularly harmful to young people who are sexually active, who are LGBTQ, or have experienced sexual abuse.”

 Co-author John Santelli, professor of Population and Family Health at Mailman School and lead researcher for the collaborative review, commented that the “weight of scientific evidence shows these programs do not help young people delay initiation of sexual intercourse.”

“While abstinence is theoretically effective, in actual practice, intentions to abstain from sexual activity often fail,” Santelli said. “These programs simply do not prepare young people to avoid unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases.”

The researchers also noted that, given the “rapidly rising age” at which folks around the world are getting married, people are increasingly spending more of their youths with ‘single’ status, and aren’t waiting for their nuptials to start learning about the sexual side of relationships, and of themselves.

Hiroo Yamagata

A sign in Ghana advises women to avoid sex as a way of preventing HIV/AIDS infection. (Credit: CC BY-SA Courtesy Hiroo Yamagata via Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers noted that the spread of AOUMs in recent years has created meaningful setbacks to the development and efficacy of HIV prevention, sex education, and family planning programs at home and worldwide. According to reviewed data, the number of schools requiring study of human sexuality fell from 67% in 2002 to just 48% by 2014, with rates of required HIV prevention education dropping from 67% to 41% in the same period. Meanwhile, the number of students who report having had some instruction on birth control methods has fallen by close to 25% since the mid ’90s.

And while numerous studies over the past couple decades have suggested that AOUMs, unlike comprehensive sex education programs, are ineffective, Congress has continued pouring precious funds into the former. Researchers reported that more than $2 billion has been spent on domestic abstinence-only programs between 1982 and 2017, and $1.4 billion in foreign aid for AOUMs. At present, domestic funding for such programs is $85 million per year, and states are prohibited from using the funds to discuss contraception, except to focus on its failure rates.

“Adolescent sexual and reproductive health promotion should be based on scientific evidence and understanding, public health principles, and human rights,” Santelli added. “Abstinence-only-until marriage as a basis for health policy and programs should be abandoned.”

Ginny Ehrlich, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, commented by email that the research provides “an extremely valuable synthesis” of hundreds of individual studies and over a decade of research suggesting firmly that AOUMs haven’t been achieving their namesake goal.

“All of our young people deserve the information and tools they need to avoid an unplanned pregnancy, [and] the evidence is clear; there are more than 40 quality sex education programs that show that they reduce teen pregnancy and/or related sexual risk behaviors, including delaying sex, increasing use of contraception, and reducing the number of sexual partners,” Erlich wrote. “And 79 percent of people in the United States–across party lines–believe that teens should receive more information about abstinence and birth control and sexually transmitted infections. It only stands to reason that even those who believe strongly that teens should wait to have sex should prioritize results and evidence over ideology.

Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey, President and CEO of the non-profit Religious Institute, which works with thousands of religious leaders in support of “comprehensive sexuality education,” also praised the researchers’ insights and recommendations. By email, she commented that the work demonstrates how giving young people accurate, thoughtful info and guidance on moral decision-making “is both honest and effective at promoting sexual health and safety.”

She also noted that the expert reviewers denounced an “immoral” decision by the Trump Administration to cut funding to 81 Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs, which have historically been far better at protecting students than AOUMs.

“Not only are abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education programs ineffective, as this research shows, but they also violate the religious value of honesty, the moral agency of young people, and the dignity of worth of all people,” Alford-Harkey continued. “These programs do a disservice to our communities by propping up one narrow religious view of sexuality and withholding from young people vital information about their bodies and their sexual and reproductive health.”

She added, “We believe that sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift [and] advocate for sexuality education that provides medically and scientifically accurate information, helps young people develop the capacity for moral discernment, and challenges harmful stereotypes and misinformation about gender roles and LGBTQ people.”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetwburns/2017/08/23/research-confirms-the-obvious-that-abstinence-only-education-hurts-kids/#7bc18f0f6615

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