Sex ed gets another endorsement

But abstinence-only programs aren't so lucky

Published November 7, 2009 12:01AM (EST)

The reliable way to teach kids about the birds and the bees? Comprehensive sex education. That's the conclusion of an independent panel that reviewed the glut of research out there on sex education and abstinence-only programs in a study released Friday. It found solid proof of its effectiveness in "reducing a number of self-reported [sexual] risk behaviors."

No surprise there, right? After all, the "hear no evil, do no evil" approach to sex has gotten quite the bad rap in recent years. But the panel, the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, did come to another rather surprising conclusion: There's "insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness" of the abstinence-only approach with regards to the reduction of teen pregnancy and STD transmission. In other words, there isn't enough reliable or consistent data to make any conclusions about its benefits or harms. That's because outcomes "differed substantially" from study to study and the panel, in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found it "hard to determine the explanation for the observed differences." The jury -- well, this particular jury, at least -- is still out.

Generous as this conclusion may seem to vocal opponents of abstinence-only education, its supporters aren't too happy with the results. Two members of the CDC Community Guide have issued a minority report claiming that the panel's recommendations "fail to acknowledge the effectiveness of abstinence education" and "make comparative effectiveness claims about [comprehensive risk reduction] versus AE that are based on weakly supported assumptions." Unfortunately, the dissenting report bases its claims on evidence that has not yet been cleared for release to the public, so there's no way to scrutinize its claims. Randy Elders of the CDC responded in the Washington Post by saying that "all of those points were considered by the task force" and that their criticism reflects "a fundamental misunderstanding of a systematic review process." He explained, "The whole point of what we are doing is to aggregate data from as many studies that are critical to answering the question. What they were doing was chopping up the evidence into very fine subsets to poke holes."

Debates over the effectiveness of various sex ed approaches have always been contentious, but that is especially true right now because there is a tremendous amount on the line: Congress is currently mulling President Obama's proposal to allocate government funds only to sex ed programs that are scientifically shown to work. Based on this report, at least, abstinence-only would be out.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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