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Abstinence can work

Only four years ago, the opponents of abstinence programs in schools were touting a study funded by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which purported to show that such programs weren't working. The study — conducted by ETR Associates, which also developed and marketed several of the comprehensive sex education courses the study lauded — found it was best to teach abstinence along with the use of condoms and birth control.

The opponents of abstinence like to pounce on such studies with an I-told-you-so sort of indignation. Their arguments generally fall along the lines that teenagers are going to behave a certain way regardless of what parents or teachers tell them; that their actions are involuntary, taken over by uncontrollable, raging hormones. Similar arguments led to this statement by Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., writing for MSNBC.com in 2005: "The message that sex must wait until marriage is not the right message to send to a young person."

Of course that is ridiculous, as many people who have raised, dealt with or once been a teenager can attest. A recent study for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bears this out.

Despite popular television shows that glamorize teen sex and portray it as ubiquitous, the study found that 68 percent of boys and 67 percent of girls ages 15-17 never have engaged in such behavior. What's more, this is a much better percentage than a similar study in 2002, demonstrating that abstinence is a growing trend.

Another study, conducted in 2009 — the National Survey of Adolescents and their Parents: Attitudes and Opinions about Sex and Abstinence — found that a majority of adolescents in the United States oppose pre-marital sex for themselves and others, as do their parents. When the data is examined further, it shows the importance of religious training. "Adolescent frequency of attending religious services was strongly associated with more conservative general views about sex and abstinence among adolescents, as well as more restrictive views about their own sexual behavior," the survey said.

Instruction and training, in other words, do affect behavior. Teenagers are not wild animals. They are rational human beings, albeit immature and with judgment skills that are not yet fully developed. This does not prohibit them from making correct choices when presented with facts, however.

Since the start of the Obama administration, federal funding for abstinence education has dried up in favor of comprehensive sex education programs. Despite this, as a report in this newspaper recently showed, many young people are hungering for an affirmation of their desires to remain chaste.

Admittedly, some abstinence-only programs are more effective than others. Teenagers aren't much different from any other age group. They don't want to be preached to, they want facts and rational arguments. That was the finding of John Jemmott, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His study found that the right type of abstinence program kept a large percentage of black students in the sixth and seventh grade from initiating sex over a two-year period when compared with a similar group that had no such training.

Given the enormous costs to society from illicit sex — problems that range from unwanted pregnancies to disease and emotional distress — abstinence deserves more, not less, attention from government and the media.