Comprehensive sex ed may cut teen pregnancies

NEW YORK Mon Mar 24, 2008 4:22pm EDT

File photo shows a two-year-old boy cooling himself off at a beach in Mumbai May 5, 2006. REUTERS/Adeel Halim

File photo shows a two-year-old boy cooling himself off at a beach in Mumbai May 5, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Adeel Halim

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Comprehensive sex education that includes discussion of birth control may help reduce teen pregnancies, while abstinence-only programs seem to fall short, the results of a U.S. survey suggest.

Using data from a 2002 national survey, researchers found that among more than 1,700 unmarried, heterosexual teens between 15 and 19 years old, those who'd received comprehensive sex ed in school were 60 percent less likely to have been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant than teens who'd had no formal sex education.

Meanwhile, there was no clear benefit from abstinence-only education in preventing pregnancy or delaying sexual intercourse, the researchers report in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The study found that teens who'd been through abstinence-only programs were less likely than those who'd received no sex ed to have been pregnant. However, the difference was not significant in statistical terms, which means the finding could have been due to chance.

In addition, there was no evidence that comprehensive sex education increased the likelihood of teen sex or boosted rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) -- a concern of people who oppose teaching birth control in schools.

While comprehensive sex ed did not clearly reduce the STD risk, there was a modest, but statistically insignificant reduced risk of engaging in sex. The abstinence-only approach had no effect on either factor, the researchers found.

"The bottom line is that there is strong evidence that comprehensive sex education is more effective than abstinence-only education at preventing teen pregnancies," said lead researcher Pamela K. Kohler, of the Center for AIDS and STD at the University of Washington in Seattle.

She told Reuters Health the study "also solidly debunks the myth that teens who learn about birth control are more likely to have sex."

Currently, the federal government champions the abstinence-only approach, giving around $170 million each year to states and community groups to teach kids to say no to sex. This funding precludes mention of birth control and condoms, unless it is to emphasize their failure rates.

Critics have long pointed out that studies have failed to show that abstinence-only education delays sex or lowers rates of teen pregnancy.

The current study is the first to compare the effects of comprehensive sex ed and abstinence-only education in a national survey, Kohler noted.

Of the teens in the study, two thirds said they had received comprehensive sex education, while about one quarter had had abstinence-only courses. Just under 10 percent said they'd received no formal sex education.

There is now a body of evidence showing that the comprehensive approach may cut the odds of teen pregnancy, without increasing the likelihood of teens having sex, according to Kohler.

However, she added, "there seems to be a gap between scientific evidence and policy change."

SOURCE: Journal of Adolescent Health, April 2008.

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