January 14, 2004 | Executive Summary on Sex Education and Abstinence
Early this year, Congress will work to renew welfare reform by reauthorizing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. As part of this process, Congress will also seek to reauthorize the Title V abstinence education program that was created, along with TANF, in the original 1996 welfare reform act, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). It is expected that advocates of "safe sex" programs will use the welfare reform debate as an opportunity to push for additional federal funding for comprehensive sex education and contraception promotion programs in the name of reducing the occurrence of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
In fact, programs promoting contraceptive use already receive very large amounts of government funding. In 2002, the federal and state governments spent an estimated $1.73 billion on a wide variety of contraception promotion and pregnancy prevention programs. More than a third of that money ($653 million) was spent specifically to fund contraceptive programs for teens.
Such programs are often called safe sex programs, comprehensive sex-ed programs, or STD (sexually transmitted disease) prevention programs. These programs are also misleadingly characterized as "abstinence plus" or "abstinence first" programs although, in fact, they contain little or no abstinence content. Most contraceptive promotion or comprehensive sex-ed curricula contain material that is alarming and offensive to most parents.
By contrast, programs teaching teens to abstain from sexual activity received only an estimated $144.1 million in 2002. Overall, government spent $12 to promote contraception for every dollar spent to encourage abstinence.
However, these spending priorities are exactly the opposite of what parents in the United States say they want taught to their teens. In a recent Zogby poll, only 8 percent of parents surveyed said they believe that teaching teens how to use a condom is more important than teaching teens to abstain from sexual activity. Instead, an overwhelming majority--85 percent--of parents said that the emphasis placed on abstinence for teens should be equal to or greater than the emphasis placed on contraception.
Teens who are sexually active are more likely to be depressed and are more likely to attempt suicide. Beginning sexual activity at a young age greatly increases the probability of becoming infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Girls who begin sexual activity at an earlier age are far more likely to have abortions.
Women who begin sexual activity at an early age are far more likely to become pregnant and give birth out of wedlock and to be single mothers. Since single mothers are far more likely to be poor, early sexual activity is linked to higher levels of child and maternal poverty.
Early sexual activity seriously undermines the ability of girls to form stable marriages as adults. When compared to women who began sexual activity in their early 20s, girls who initiated sexual activity at ages 13 or 14 were less than half as likely to be in stable marriages in their 30s. Beginning sexual activity at an older age, however, is linked to higher levels of personal happiness in adult years.
Regrettably, relatively few teens receive a clear message about the harmful effects of early sexual activity; few are taught that society expects teens to delay sexual activity. Instead, most safe sex/comprehensive sex-ed programs send the clear, if implicit, message that society expects and condones teen sexual activity. The main message is that it's okay for teens to have sex as long as they use condoms.
Abstinence education programs seek to encourage a delay in sexual activity. Abstinence is widely popular, and many evaluations show that abstinence education programs can substantially reduce teen sexual activity. Despite this, there is currently relatively little government funding for abstinence education.
Given the alarming content of most comprehensive sex-ed programs, and given the current funding imbalance between contraceptive promotion and abstinence programs, efforts to increase funding for contraceptive programs for teens would be dangerously counterproductive. Any new monies devoted to preventing pregnancy should be directed not to amply funded contraception programs, but to abstinence education programs that teach teens to delay sexual activity, reveal the harm caused by casual sex with multiple partners, and help young people to prepare for fidelity, intimacy, and healthy marriage.
Melissa G. Pardue is Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Fellow in Social Welfare Policy in the Domestic Policy Studies Department, Robert E. Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and Shannan Martin is Research Assistant in Welfare Policy at The Heritage Foundation.