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More Bad News for Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

As Congress continues to decide the Fiscal Year 2008 funding level for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, a group of leading public health researchers weigh in and another study shows that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not effective and not deserving of federal funds.

Leading Researchers Urge Congress to Cut or Eliminate Abstinence-Only Funding

Ten public health researchers sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on November 21, 2007 urging Congress to reduce or eliminate federal support for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, in part because the programs have “multiple scientific and ethical errors.”  The researchers declared that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs withhold “potentially life-saving information” about birth control and ignore the health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.

The letter focused on the large body of evidence showing that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective in getting young people to delay sexual initiation, noting that, “Recent reports in professional publications by the authors of this letter have highlighted multiple deficiencies in federal abstinence-only programs.”  Referring to Congress’ recent decision to increase funding for the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) account, the researchers continued, “…we are surprised and dismayed that the Congress is proposing to extend and even increase funding for these programs.”

The letter was signed by John Santelli, Peter Bearman, and Julien Teitler all of Columbia University, as well as by Claire Brindis of the University of California-San Francisco, Hannah Bruckner and Kristen Underhill of Yale University, Lawrence Finer and Laura Duberstein Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute, Mary Ott of Indiana University, and Deborah Tolman of San Francisco State University.

“We strongly urge the U.S. Congress to reconsider federal support for abstinence-only education programs and policies,” concluded the letter.  The researchers also offered their assistance to Congress stating that, “We would be very willing to advise you on shaping alternatives to the current program.”

Another Study Questions the Effectiveness of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs  

In early November, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, a report authored by Dr. Douglas Kirby, a leading sexual health researcher, which looks at which programs work in preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The report found strong evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs do not have any impact on teen sexual behavior.  The report found that the programs did not persuade teenagers to delay sex, return to abstinence after having sex for the first time, or reduce their number of sexual partners.

The study also found no evidence to support the continued investment of public funds in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.  “In sum, studies of abstinence programs have not produced sufficient evidence to justify their widespread dissemination….Only when strong evidence demonstrates that particular programs are effective should they be disseminated more widely,” stated the report.1

According to the study, no abstinence-only-until-marriage program that is of the type to be eligible for funding by the federal government has yet been found in methodologically rigorous study to positively impact teen sexual behavior. “At present, there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners. In addition, there is strong evidence from multiple randomized trials demonstrating that some abstinence programs chosen for evaluation because they were believed to be promising actually had no impact on teen sexual behavior.”2

On the other hand, the study, which also examined the efficacy of more comprehensive programs, found a substantial majority of them to be effective. The positive outcomes included delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners, and increasing condom or contraceptive use.3 While abstinence-only-until-marriage programs receive $176 million a year in federal funding, there is no federal funding for comprehensive sexuality education.

 “After all of these years and more than a billion dollars poured into failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, what do we have to show for it? Study after study and a slew of researchers saying quite simply, these programs don’t work and the federal government should not be funding them,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS.  “All available evidence, not to mention fiscal responsibility, requires that the funding for CBAE be decreased,” continued Smith, adding that, “Congress needs to do the right thing and cut or eliminate funding for these clearly ineffective programs.”


  1. Douglas Kirby, Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, (Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2007), p. 15, accessed 6 December 2007, < >. 
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., p. 15-16.