The Pros and Cons of Abstinence Only Education

The pros and cons of abstinence-only education versus comprehensive sex education in schools has been going on for years. Both sides say their plan for educating children and teens on sexual relations is the right one. And as the debate heats up, it has moved into the national political arena.

Abstinence-only education got a boost when U.S. President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress increased funding for federal abstinence programs in public schools in 2002.

Since then, critics of abstinence-only education have cried foul, claiming that such programs are religious in nature and that the programs are ineffective and have no place in public schools.

Arguments for Abstinence Only Education
Proponents of abstinence education say that abstaining from sex is the only appropriate advice for teen-agers.  Abstinence educators tell teen-agers that it's in their best interest to abstain from sexual activity until they're married. Beyond the risks of pregnancy and STDs, teens are not emotionally ready for a sexual encounter and all that it entails. Abstinence education emphasizes the moral teachings that sex outside of marriage carries with it heavy emotional and physical costs.

Among the arguments for abstinence-only education are:

  • Abstinence is 100 percent effective in preventing teen pregnancy and preventing sexually transmitted diseases. The use of condoms, which sex educators promote because of their effectiveness in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, are not 100 percent effective, especially when used by young people inexperienced in their proper use.
  • Telling teens about sex and how to prevent pregnancy and STDs while also encouraging them to abstain sends mixed signals and downplays the importance of abstinence.
  • A "just don't do it" message is used successfully in campaigns against drunk driving, guns, gangs and other youth issues, and it can be used effectively in abstinence too.
  • Abstinence education goes further by teaching teens how to avoid unwanted sexual advances fueled by drugs and alcohol, how to avoid situations that can lead to sex, and the toll an unwanted pregnancy can take on a teen's life.

Arguments Against Abstinence Only Education
While abstinence-only education programs have the support of many major national religious groups, a comprehensive sex education program in schools has the backing of a wide range of educational and medical organizations.

Most proponents of comprehensive sex education argue that teens should be encouraged to abstain, but should also get information about contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases, and how to prevent HIV.

Critics who say abstinence only education is a failure have some evidence on their side.  Studies show that providing information about contraception does not increase teen sexual activity.  At the same time, teens who received only abstinence education were no more likely to abstain.  And when they did stray, without education about birth control, they were more likely to get pregnant.

Sex ed proponents say that teens should be given facts, information and tools to deal with sexual matters in an informed way. That includes:

  • Teaching teens about all the types of contraception and how each prevents pregnancy.
  • Being truthful about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, how to prevent them, especially HIV.
  • Acknowledging that a majority of high school students have been and will continue to be sexually active and that hoping that they abstain doesn't work. 

The Best of Both Worlds: Abstinence Education and Sex Education

Studies show that the majority of Americans support sexuality education, but also want teens to get a strong message of abstinence from society.

There has been a drop in the number of teen pregnancies, births and abortions in recent years. However, whether this drop is due to abstinence education or educating teens about contraception, is not clear.

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