March 27, 2009


Abstinence education

In our Feb. 13 issue, we published a feature by senior reporter Mary Ann Wyand about Stephanie and Christopher Fenton, who were so proud of the fact that they had waited until marriage to have sexual intimacy that Stephanie fastened her A Promise to Keep chastity pin to her wedding bouquet.

The young couple had been part of the archdiocese’s A Promise to Keep: God’s Gift of Sexuality program, serving as abstinence education peer mentors and encouraging younger teenagers to refrain from having sex.

At nearly the exact time that our article was published, other periodicals published articles questioning the effectiveness of abstinence programs like A Promise to Keep.

For example, the Feb. 14 issue of The Economist reported, “Abstinence-only education programs have been controversial ever since they were introduced under [President] Ronald Reagan in 1981. Some liberals have labeled it ‘ignorance-only’ education and most favor a curriculum that includes discussion of both abstinence and contraception.”

It continued, “Since the start of abstinence-only programs, the federal government has spent over $1.5 billion on them, but the United States still has one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates of any developed country.”

The Economist article said that the fate of abstinence education is uncertain under the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress. A bill that would fund “medically accurate” comprehensive sex education in schools is expected to be passed by legislators.

Another periodical, Our Sunday Visitor, reported in its March 1 issue that a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health compared teenagers who made pledges to remain abstinent with other teenagers who shared similar values but did not make a pledge, and concluded that a virginity pledge had no impact on whether or not teenagers had sex.

However, that finding was disputed by the RAND corporation, a non-profit research and development organization, in a study which found that teenagers who took pledges became sexually active at a lower rate than comparable teenagers who did not take pledges. The idea of a pledge, of course, is to make teenagers feel more accountable to their families and friends as well as to themselves.

In our sex-saturated society, it is remarkable that any teenagers can remain chaste. Movies and television sit-coms give the impression that the search for a sex partner is the most important part of life and that everyone is “doing it.”

Despite society’s pressures and teenagers’ raging hormones, it is not true that most teens are having sex, although the figures are hardly comforting to parents of teens.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of students in grades 9 to 12 who reported being sexually active has declined since 1991 when it was 54.1 percent. The most recent figure is 46.8 percent, less than half but not by much.

Besides the archdiocese’s A Promise to Keep progam, one of the largest Christian abstinence programs is True Love Waits, which began in 1993. Since then, teenagers have signed 3 million pledge cards. According to Jimmy Hester, co-founder of the program, no scientific study on the effectiveness of the program has been made, but he measures its success in the feedback they receive from teenagers.

Margaret Hendricks, program coordinator of A Promise to Keep, can say the same thing. Obviously, not every teenager who has made a pledge manages to keep it, but she knows that the program has been effective.

Part of the effectiveness depends on whether or not there is a religious component to the program. When teens are taught the beauty of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and the good news behind its call to reserve sexual intercourse for husbands and wives—and why fornication is seriously immoral and leads to many problems for teens—there is a greater chance that teenagers will try to remain chaste than if they believe it’s only to keep from becoming pregnant or keep from contracting a disease.

Other parts of a successful program involve peer mentors, as the Fentons were, and training in skill-building techniques that give participants a chance to learn how to avoid situations that might lead to sex. Some abstinence programs don’t do those things, but the A Promise to Keep program addresses these important skills.

—John F. Fink

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