I’ve never been a fan of abstinence education, not that I care much for the alternatives. The whole idea that an educational system that has landed us in 12th place in international science tests could bring down America’s world-class teen pregnancy rate has always struck me as a dubious proposition, no matter what curriculum was being used. This past week’s mini-drama surrounding the release of two conflicting studies related to sex education highlights another reason for skepticism on the subject: the limits of social science, especially when filtered through the largely liberal media.
Last Tuesday, the Guttmacher Institute issued a report showing that teen pregnancy rates had risen in 2006 after 15 years of decline, or at the very worst, stasis. Never mind that the increase had already been noted a year and a half ago by the National Center for Health Statistics; Guttmacher’s insistence that Bush-era abstinence education had caused the reversal was irresistible gotcha material for liberals. Then yesterday, like some deus ex machina toying with liberal prejudice, the Washington Post reported on a study appearing in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine of an abstinence program targeting low-income African-American kids. The study seemed to show, as the Post headline had it, that ABSTINENCE-ONLY PROGRAMS MIGHT WORK.
The contradiction can be traced back to the category errors that beset much of social science. First, consider the fact that when we talk about teen pregnancy, we’re talking about both 13- and 19-year-olds, though they’re creatures of two very different species. According to the Guttmacher numbers, the rise in teen pregnancy owed to an increase in pregnancy rates among 18- and 19-year-olds. (Pregnancy rates among 14-year-olds declined; the rates for 15- to 17-year-olds barely budged.) Not only does this cast doubt on the notion that abstinence education had anything to do with the 2006 uptick in overall teen pregnancy rates, since the mothers-to-be were already well beyond the middle-school sex-ed years; it also raises questions about what problem we’re really talking about. Isn’t the increased pregnancy rate among 19-year-olds better understood as a sign of the stunning growth in single motherhood, especially among young women in their twenties? And if so, how relevant is sex education to this issue at all?
Teen pregnancy is not the only category that both frames and confuses this debate. People argue as if there is a unified enterprise called Abstinence Education, but thousands of programs promote the idea that kids ought to avoid sex outside of marriage. Some—but by no means all—include “purity” pledges; some try to scare kids with close-up slides of oozing genital herpes and exaggerated warnings about the risks of condoms; others avoid scare tactics and concentrate on getting kids to think about future relationships, love, and marriage. A minuscule number of these curricula have undergone rigorous testing, meaning that we have no idea whether they’re effective in general. Yet that doesn’t stop critics from crying, “See! Abstinence doesn’t work!” when a study of a group of 30 purity pledgers from Podunk comes out and shows no positive effects.
A similar category error confuses the other side. What is comprehensive sex education, anyway? Some sex-ed programs live up to their notorious reputation; they do teach kids how to masturbate or offer three-part instruction on how to put a condom on a cucumber. Contraception is a major part of the course of study, but many comprehensive programs also encourage kids to postpone having sex. Only a small number of these programs have been studied, and only a fraction of those have been shown to work. Even before the 1980s, when teen pregnancy was first decreed a national problem, sex education had been a megabusiness for consultants, educators, and advocates. By 2001, a report issued by the National Campaign Against Teen Pregnancy could find only five programs that seemed to have any effect. By 2009, that number had grown, but it still isn’t clear that success has much to do with contraceptive education. One success that the National Campaign cites is a community-service program that didn’t include any discussion of contraception—or even sex!—at all.
These long-term ambiguous results—at enormous cost to taxpayers, I might add—never bothered liberals until abstinence education came along. If one didn’t know better, one would think that many were more interested in promoting a worldview than in reducing teen pregnancy. As Jay Greene and Maggie Gallagher have noted, the Obama administration recently released a long-suppressed report concluding that any gains experienced by children in Head Start disappear by the end of first grade. You probably didn’t hear the reality-based community announcing that Head Start doesn’t work. Reality, it seems, is all in the framing.