Abstinence-only Education

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.

The Bush administration interfered with scientific work on sex education programs, altering the methodology of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studies on abstinence-only education to prevent them from tracking results and suppressing the dissemination of other scientific information on sex education programs. In 2010, the Obama administration instituted an “evidence-based” standard for funding sex education programs, and it has funded both comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education programs that have proven effective.

While considering studies on the effectiveness of sex education programs, the Bush administration distorted science-based performance measures to test whether abstinence-only programs were proving effective, such as charting the birth rate of female program participants. In place of such established measures, the Bush administration required the CDC to track only participants' program attendance and attitudes, measures designed to obscure the lack of efficacy of abstinence-only programs.

In addition to distorting performance measures, the Bush administration suppressed other information at odds with its preferred policies. At the behest of higher-ups in the Bush administration, according to a source inside the CDC, the agency was forced to discontinue a project called “Programs that Work,” which identified sex education programs found to be effective in scientific studies. All five of the programs identified in 2002 involved comprehensive sex education for teenagers and none were abstinence-only programs. In ending the project, the CDC removed all information about these programs from its website.

One scientist, who departed from a high-ranking position at the CDC, recounted that, on one occasion, even top staff scientists at the agency were required by the administration to attend a day-long session purportedly devoted to the “science of abstinence.” As this source put it, “out of the entire session, conducted by a nonscientist, the only thing resembling science was one study reportedly in progress and another not even begun.” Despite the absence of supporting data, this source and others contended, CDC scientists were regularly reminded to push the administration’s abstinence-only stance. As he put it, “The effect was very chilling.”

In 2010, the Obama Administration established an “evidence-based” standard for funding decisions on sex education programs. To be eligible for funding, a program needs evidence obtained through rigorous evaluation indicating that it delays sexual activity, increases contraceptive use, or reduces teenage pregnancy. As of May 2012, the administration provided funding to 28 programs, including both comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education.

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