Abstinence On the Rise Among U.S. Teen-agers

WASHINGTON—Abstinence, not contraceptive use, is responsible for a decline in teen pregnancies and birthrates, according to a new study.

The study, done by the Consortium of State Physicians Resource Councils, shows that the birthrate for young females has declined while the number of both young males and females using abstinence has increased.

In addition, the growing use of condoms, which has been promoted by so-called safe-sex advocates, has actually boosted out-of-wedlock birth rates. Between 1988 and 1995, birthrates of sexually active teen-agers increased 29% at a time when condom use soared by 33%.

Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who also is a practicing physician, told reporters at a press conference Feb. 10, “When Congress decided in 1996 to allocate $250 to promote sexual abstinence until marriage, the sex education establishment derided that policy, stating that teens needed training in condom use to prevent pregnancy. This report debunks that theory and lands on the side of abstinence.”

The report, “The Declines in Adolescent Pregnancy, Abortion and Birth Rates in the 1990s: What Factors are Responsible?”, was written by 11 physicians and commissioned by a network of 13 state organizations which represent more than 2,000 physicians.

Among the surprising data: The number of teen-age males practicing abstinence soared from 39% in 1990 to 51% in 1997. Female abstinence increased slightly, to 52.3% from 52% during the same period.

As a result, the birthrate for females between the ages of 15 and 19 decreased from 62.1 births to 54.7 births per thousand between 1991 and 1997. The abortion rate within this group also declined from 18.8 in 1990 to 13.5 per 1,000 females in 1995.

Among the physicians who participated in the study and attended the news conference were Dr. John Diggs of the Massachusetts Physicians Resource Council. He said, “Our report challenges the consensus of government funded health agencies that contraceptive training and the increased availability of condoms for teens must play a central role in the prevention of pregnancy.

“The findings of our report show that the safe sex approach to teen sexuality is a failure and not at all safe.”

One of his colleagues, Dr. Joanna Mohn of the New Jersey Physicians Resource Council, added, “The implications of this research to public health policy are far reaching. Abstinence, not ‘safe sex,’ has proven to be the successful teen health message.”

In addition to the pregnancy issue, the physicians addressed the matter of disease.

“Abstinence is the best defense against the growing sexually transmitted disease epidemic in this country,” Rep. Coburn said. “Condoms give virtually no protection against the most common sexually transmitted disease, human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes almost all forms of cervical cancer.

“Nearly 15 million Americans will contract an STD [sexually transmitted disease] this year alone. Approximately two-thirds of these new cases will occur in people under 25 years of age.”

Another congressman from Oklahoma, Ernest Istook, championed abstinence for preventing teen pregnancies and reducing sexually transmitted diseases. But he added, “It's also the right thing morally,” a position which resonates with Catholic and many other Christian leaders.

The Catholic Church's teaching on sexual abstinence until marriage is clear. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2348) notes: “All the baptized are called to chastity. The Christian has ‘put on Christ,’ the model for all chastity.

“All Christ's faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life. At the moment of his Baptism, the Christian is pledged to lead his affective life in chastity.”

Consistent with this teaching, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has continued to emphasize chastity education through its Office of Pro-Life Activities. According to Theresa Notare of that office, William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore sent a letter to all bishops Feb. 12. He is the chairman of the bishops'pro-life efforts.

The letter, the latest in a series of initiatives on the subject, disseminated Nine Tips to Help Faith Leaders and Their Communities Address Teen Pregnancy, a short report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. In addition, Cardinal Keeler also announced that a Catholic chastity curriculum guide will be distributed by the bishops in the spring.

There are, of course, a number of state, local and privately-funded chastity programs which have been successful. Among those cited at the news conference were True Love Waits, established by the Baptist Sunday School Board; the Michigan Abstinence Partnership, supported by Gov. John Engler; Best Friends, geared toward junior high school girls in Washington, D.C.; and an effective community program in Denmark, South Carolina.

Best Friends, headed by Elyane Bennett, wife of former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, encourages a comprehensive program which bolsters the self-image of largely inner-city girls. Those who have participated in the program have only a 10% rate of sexual activity as contrasted to 37% for its peer group in District of Columbia public schools.

The success of these and other private and local programs encouraged Congress to enact a five-year, $250 million abstinence education program in 1996. Part of the welfare-reform bill, this block grant allocates federal funds to states ranging from $69,855 per year for Utah and Vermont to $5.8 million to California.

Yet, organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States have been critical of the program. So, too, have been officials of the administering agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and some state health officials.

As a result, New Hampshire and California turned down abstinence education money last year, and a number of states diverted money to unrelated uses.

Peter Brandt, head of a watchdog group called the National Coalition for Abstinence Education, told the Register last October, “There has been a concerted attempt by some in the public health establishment to water down, and in some cases to even violate, the intent of the law.”

The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Commerce Committee held a hearing on this subject last fall. Brandt was one of those testifying, noting that only 16 or 17 states “have embraced the intent of the law.” Ten states, he reported, adopted regulations which attack the law's intent, 21 diluted the law, and two were not participating

Brandt told the Register, Feb. 10, that although a few more states have come around, problems persist. He expects that the same subcommittee will again investigate this year and “come back with more teeth” in the law.

For Brandt, the problem here is simple: “It's money, it's power, and it's ideology. They [abstinence opponents] know that abstinence works. This is not about kids, it's about power and money.

“If abstinence education is effective, it challenges a multibillion-dollar industry which only exists because kids are sexually active.”

One of the leaders of the social conservatives in the House, Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), told the Register, I'm a strong supporter of abstinence education. We ought to make the appropriations permanent. It works.”

Agreeing that “we have bureaucrats who are undermining the whole intent of the law,” he supports further oversight hearings. He also is looking to include abstinence education in a broad-based program, the Women and Children's Resources Act, which he will soon introduce.

This law, based on a model he helped enact in Pennsylvania, would allocate $85 million annually to reimburse crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes, and adoption agencies. Reimbursable services would include pregnancy testing, health care and guidance, abstinence education, and referrals for assistance in a variety of areas.

Although he supports federal abstinence programs, Rep. Coburn told the Register, “Washington isn't going to solve this” problem of teen sexual permissiveness and pregnancy. Pitts' new legislation would be one way to help give money back to the states for this purpose. Such activity at the state and at the local, church, and family level — Coburn and other activists suggest — will be essential is further encouraging abstinence.

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.