Opponents of President Bush’s proposal to boost spending on abstinence education, by 33 percent to $135 million, as a way to fight teen pregnancy make two familiar arguments. First, they charge, nothing in the research proves that abstinence ed does anything to get kids to postpone sexual activity. Second, they say, the kind of enlightened policy that European governments pursue—more sex ed and family planning clinics, and easy access to contraception—is a proven success in making kids more sexually responsible when they do choose to have sex.
Well, a study just published in the British Journal of Health Economics suggests that you’d better draw a big question mark after Number Two. The study looked at family planning clinics frequented by teens in 16 different areas of England over 14 years; its results defy the conventional wisdom among sex educators—at least as it applies to teens under 16. The study found no evidence that family planning helps reduce pregnancy among young teens and some hints that it might do the opposite. In 1984, when a court case temporarily restricted teen access to family planning clinics, teen pregnancy rates actually fell. What’s more, in the last few years, the number of clinics has exploded and many more young teens have made use of them, but pregnancy rates among girls under 16 have still gone up.
It’s not just sexuality experts who are embarrassed by the study. The British government is red-faced, too. Britain has by far the highest rates of teen pregnancy, teen births, and teen abortions in Europe (though the rates are considerably lower than in the United States). The problem is particularly acute among young teens: a 1999 University of Edinburgh study found that an astonishing 38 percent of 15-year-olds reported having had sex, and abortion rates for girls under 16 have shot up 20 percent since 1991. Three years ago, an alarmed Labour government set out to cut the teen pregnancy rate in half by 2010. Their approach was to offer more sex ed and more family planning clinics (including in schools), so that teens would have better access to birth control—just the model that the Journal of Health Economics study now says hasn’t worked.
What about the other argument made by opponents of abstinence ed—that there’s no evidence that it works? That’s true, but nothing proves that it doesn’t work, either. It’s a new approach, and researchers simply don’t have any long-term evaluations yet.
So far, the British study has received zero publicity in the United States, even though the sex-ed wars are heating up. In England, the reaction has been outright denial. "We have seen that open and honest communication demystifies sex and delays first intercourse," says Simon Blake, a member of England’s Advisory Group on Teenage Pregnancy, waving away the study’s findings. The Tesco supermarket in north Somerset proved equally obtuse when it recently announced that it would hand out free "morning-after" anti-pregnancy pills to teens. Maybe research doesn’t matter much after all.