WASHINGTON A pair of officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defended abstinence education programs in a recent opinion piecemonths after a Harvard study suggested the approach was ineffective. The goal of such programs is to delay teens' introduction to sexual activity, they wrote, noting that reliable statistics indicate that's exactly what it takes to reduce teen pregnancies.
Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for Children and Families within HHS, and Jeffrey Trimbath, director of abstinence education at the HHS' Administration for Children and Families, wrote "Another Reason for Abstinence," which was posted on the government's Children and Families Web site this summer.
They cite a recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy which found that if teen-agers delay the onset of sexual activity and reduce the number of partners they have, they are much less likely to become pregnant or get someone pregnant compared to those who don't.
"By definition, abstinence education programs aim to do just that. Through education, mentoring, counseling and peer support, abstinence education services help teens delay the onset of sexual activity and reduce the number of sexual partners they have," Horn and Trimbath wrote.
The duo said more teens are adopting abstinence as their personal standard, and they used statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make their point.
"According to the CDC, the percentage of teens who report that they have had sex has decreased from 54 percent in the early 1990s, to 46 percent today," Horn and Trimbath wrote. "Just a few short years ago, a majority of teens did not practice abstinence. Now, a majority of teens are abstinent. It just so happens that these trends coincide with increased funding for abstinence education from Washington. Coincidence? We think not."
The George W. Bush administration has proposed historic increases in abstinence education, and the president has personally encouraged teen-agers to delay sexual activity, the HHS officials noted.
"Abstinence is the surest way and the only completely effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases," Bush said in a 2002 speech on welfare reform.
Horn and Trimbath also cited an HHS report from 2005 which found that teens who participated in federally funded abstinence programs showed an "increased awareness of the risks associated with teen sexual behavior and an increased acceptance of delaying sexual behavior."
"Of course, more work needs to be done, but these results are promising," they wrote.
Others weigh in
Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, wrote in his July 5 BreakPoint commentary that teens are much more likely to keep abstinence pledges when they rely on the power of the Holy Spirit and have the support of peers and family.
"True transformation requires God's enabling grace," Colson wrote. "And because of the way God created us to reflect the inherent relational nature of the Trinity, transformation happens best within the context of community."
Colson cited an op-ed piece by Christian author Lauren Winner that appeared in The New York Times in May in response to a Harvard study that said teen-agers' virginity pledges were ineffective. Winner urged Christians to rethink abstinence pledges and reconsider how they talk about sex in the church.
However, Winner described the widely used "True Love Waits" virginity pledge and others like it as "well meaning, but deeply flawed."
"Pledgers promise to control intense bodily desires simply by exercising their wills," Winner wrote. "But Christian ethics recognizes that the broken, twisted will can do nothing without rehabilitation by God's grace. Perhaps the centrality of grace is recognized best not in a pledge but in a prayer that names chastity as a gift and beseeches God for the grace to receive it."
Richard Ross, co-founder of the True Love Waits abstinence movement, voiced regret that Winner "seems to know so little about True Love Waits."
"To be honest, she has her facts exactly backwards," Ross told Baptist Press. "Secular abstinence programs rely entirely on the will of the student. It is True Love Waits that places the power of God front and center.
"On every page of curriculum for TLW, we hold high the power of God to call a student to purity and the power of God to keep that promise," Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, added.
"The promise itself is made in a reverent worship service. Teen-agers are surrounded with the prayers of parents and leaders that the Holy Spirit will give them strength to keep the promise they have made."
Winner also wrote that churches ought to back up those pledges by offering an ongoing community of support. Drawing from her observations at some meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Winner wrote, "They know that making a promise by themselvesI will stop drinkingwon't cut it. Alcoholics Anonymous explicitly recognizes that transformation works best when a community comes alongside you and participates in your transformation."
Ross said Winner has it backward again.
"Secular abstinence programs often provide little community and support around a student who will face temptation," Ross said. "But in the Christian community, youth groups and families surround True Love Waits teenagers with continuing support and encouragement. This positive peer support and even positive peer pressure, plus accountability with the family and church, together create a powerful force toward purity."