Abstinence-Only Sex Education Curriculum

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

Federally funded abstinence-only programs use curricula that contain "false, misleading or distorted information about reproductive health," according to a 2004 congressional study prepared for Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA).1 Abstinence-only (or abstinence-only-until-marriage) classes teach teenagers only about abstinence and not about any other ways of protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Federal support for abstinence-only education programs has increased steadily under the Bush administration, rising from $80 million in fiscal year 2001 to $167 million in fiscal year 2005.2 The Waxman study says that support for abstinence-only programs has risen despite the fact that rigorous academic studies have found them to be ineffective.

For example, while abstinence-only classes encourage young people to take a pledge that they will remain virgins until marriage, the Waxman study cites research that indicates "virginity pledgers" are no less likely to engage in premarital sex than their peers. Pledgers have rates of sexually transmitted diseases similar to other teens, and are less likely to use contraception in the event that they do engage in sexual intercourse.3

The Bush administration distorted science-based performance measures when testing whether abstinence-only programs were proving effective. The administration insisted that the Centers for Disease Control, the federal agency sponsoring abstinence education, measure success by the participation rates and attitudes of teens attending the programs,4 not the pregnancy rates of those teens, as had been the previous standard.5

In addition to being ineffective at deterring teen pregnancy and disease, the Waxman study reports that federally-funded abstinence-only programs teach children false scientific information. "Eleven of the thirteen curricula most commonly used by [federally funded abstinence-only programs] contain major errors and distortions of public health information," says the study.6

Some of the misinformation suggests poor research and editing by curricula authors. For example, one curriculum explains that "twenty-four chromosomes from the mother and twenty-four chromosomes from the father join to create this new individual;" the actual number is twenty-three.7

Most of the errors, however, appear to stem from an ideological effort to scare young people about sex, contraception, and abortion. The treatment of condoms is one example. The U. S. Center for Disease Control has found that "latex condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of STD pathogens."8 Still, one abstinence curriculum sought to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of condoms:

Think on a microscopic level. Sperm cells, STI organisms, and HIV cannot be seen with the naked eye—you need a microscope. Any imperfections in the contraceptive not visible to the eye, could allow sperm, STI, or HIV to pass through. . . . The size difference between a sperm cell and the HIV virus can be roughly related to the difference between the size of a football field and a football.9

The curriculum goes on to falsely state that "the actual ability of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS, even if the product is intact, is definitely not known." Another curriculum says "the typical failure rate for the male condom is 14 percent in preventing pregnancy."10 This statement is a distortion of the fact that given typical use, couples have a 15 percent chance of experiencing a condom failure over the course of a year; the failure rate falls to 2-3 percent with perfect condom use.11

Abstinence-only education programs also contain misinformation about abortions. "Sterility: Studies show that five to ten percent of women will never again be pregnant after having a legal abortion," one curriculum says.12 In actuality, as obstetricians are taught, an elective abortion does not alter fertility.13

Unfortunately, this pseudo science is fed to young people in need of correct, factual information regarding important life decisions. The Waxman study highlights the necessity for more government oversight to ensure that federally funded education programs teach scientific fact, not falsehood.

1. "The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs," US House of Representatives Committee of Government Reform, prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), December 2004.
2. Waxman, 1.
3. Bruckner, H. et al. 2005. After the promise: the STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health 36: 271.
4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, SPRANS Community-Based Abstinence Education Program, Pre-Application Workshop, December, 2002. Guidelines were available online, but have since been removed.
5. Federal Register 65:69562-65, November 17, 2000.
6. Waxman, 7.
7. Why kNOw Abstinence Education curriculum, Pg. 166.
8. Centers for Disease Control, 2003. Male Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
9. I'm in Charge of the FACTS (middle school curriculum), Pg. 111.
10. Choosing the Best, The Big Talk Book (for parents), Pg. 39.
11. Trussell, J. 2004. "Contraceptive Failure in the United States" (subscription required). Contraception 70: 89.
12. Me, My World, My Future curriculum, 157.
13. F. Gary Cunningham et al., Williams Obstetrics 21st Edition, 877 (2001). The textbook notes that “[a] possible exception is the small risk from pelvic infection.” Another textbook states that “[c]oncerns about infertility as a result of induced abortion seem largely unfounded, except for the rare severe complication managed by hysterectomy.” Steven Gabbe et al., Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies, 4th Edition (2002).

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