Students who participated in a Milwaukee after-school abstinence program were just as likely to have sex a few years later as those who did not take part in the program, according to a national study.
They also used condoms at similar rates and had a similar number of sexual partners, the study found. Mathematica Policy Research Inc. conducted the research, which Congress mandated to evaluate the effectiveness of the $176 million the federal government spends each year on abstinence-until-marriage education. The study was released this month.
From fall 1999 to fall 2001, 326 middle-school-age boys and girls participated in the Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy program administered by Rosalie Manor Community & Family Services in Milwaukee. The year-round program met between two and four times a week, Al Castro, the organization's executive director, said Friday.
When that group was surveyed in late 2005 and early 2006, 60% of those who had participated in the program had remained abstinent, compared with 62% of youths who hadn't taken the class. The study compared them to 178 youths who did not participate in the abstinence program.
"This study should leave no doubt as to the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education," said Lisa Boyce, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.
But Boyce said she was surprised the study found that the use of contraceptives was similar among both groups. Of those who participated in the Rosalie Manor program, 36% used a condom the first time they had sex, compared with 32% of those who were not in the program.
Critics of abstinence-only education have long argued that it increases the rate of unprotected sex.
"They didn't come out naïve," Castro said of the program participants. "We're not dumbing them down."
The study focused on programs involving 2,057 youths in two urban areas - Milwaukee and Miami - and two rural areas - Powhatan, Va., and Clarksdale, Miss. The students who participated in abstinence education did so for one to three years. Their average age was 11 to 12 when they entered the programs in 1999.
Milwaukee has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate of the 50 largest U.S. cities, according to a 2006 United Way report.
According to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 51% of Milwaukee teens have had sex by ninth grade. At the time of the follow-up survey, the average age of the Milwaukee youths was 15.5.
Castro's organization receives money from the federal block grant program for abstinence education known as Title V, but he said he's not disheartened by the study's findings.
"We all need evaluation," he said. "If there are lessons to be learned, we're willing to look at that and see what we can do to improve."
Bush administration officials cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the study. They said the four programs reviewed were some of the very first established after Congress overhauled the nation's welfare laws in 1996.
Mathematica's study could have serious implications as Congress considers renewing this summer the block grant program for abstinence education. The federal government has authorized up to $50 million a year for the program. Participating states then provide $3 for every $4 they get from the federal government. Eight states declined to take part in the grant program.
Some lawmakers and advocacy groups believe the federal government should use that money for comprehensive sex education, which would include abstinence as a piece of the curriculum.
To read the study, visit www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/impactabstinence.pdf. The Associated Press contributed to this report.