Federal Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Proven Ineffective in Delaying Sexual Activity among Young People

After years of delay in its release, a federally supported evaluation of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs funded under the 1996 federal welfare reform law has proven the programs ineffective in changing teens’ sexual behavior.  The report, released on April 13, 2007 and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found no evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs increased rates of sexual abstinence. In addition, students in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs had a similar number of sexual partners as their peers not in the programs, as well as a similar age of first sex.

“This report should serve as the final verdict on the failure of the abstinence-only industry in this country,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).  “It shows, once again, that these programs fail miserably in actually helping young people behave more responsibly when it comes to their sexuality,” Smith continued.

In 1996, the federal government attached a provision to the welfare reform law establishing a federal program for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.  This program, Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, dedicated $50 million per year to be distributed among states that choose to participate. States accepting the funds are required to match every four federal dollars with three state-raised dollars (for a total of $87.5 million annually).  Close to $800 million has been spent on these programs between 1998 and 2006. Programs that receive the Title V funding are prohibited from discussing methods of contraception, including condoms, except in the context of failure rates.

The Mathematica report focused on four federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in different communities. Young people in these communities were assigned either to the program group (those people who participated in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs) or a control group.  Young people in the control group did not participate in a specific program, but, instead received the sexuality education resources and services available in their community which varied widely. In total, there were 2,057 participants; 1,209 of those young people were enrolled in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and 848 were part of a control group.  The survey was conducted roughly four to six years after the young people had participated in the programs.  The average age of participants at the time of the survey was 16.5.  Researchers surveyed both groups about their sexual attitudes, knowledge, and behavior and found very few differences.1

Although the current administration shows few signs of rethinking Title V spending, nine states have rejected this money.  These states have said that the funding comes with too many strings attached and represents extremist policies rather than the best interest of the young people in their states.  They also reminded policymakers that the programs supported by these funds are ineffective.  Congress has the opportunity to reevaluate and abolish this funding stream when Title V comes up for reauthorization in June 2007.   

“This Congress has a momentous opportunity to end the charade and use these federal funds to support programs that actually work,” said William Smith. “We fully expect this Congress to look at the government’s own commissioned evidence set forth in this report and end funding for these failed and ideologically driven programs,” Smith continued.

To read the full report from Mathematica, Please follow this link: http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/abstinence07/index.htm


  1. Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs (Mathematica Policy Research, Inc, 2007), 59-61.

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