A companion bill to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act allocated $50 million a year to support abstinence-only sex education. With the bill's five-year term expiring this year, the bill will soon go before Congress for reauthorization.

Two weeks ago, George Bush announced his welfare renewal plan, which increased the funding of abstinence-only sex education programs to $135 million annually through 2007.

"When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral," Bush said in announcing his plan February 26. "Government should not sell children short by assuming they are incapable of acting responsibly. We must promote the good choices."

Opponents argue that to be effective, sex education programs teach both abstinence and contraception. Three House representatives, Republican James C. Greenwood of Pennsylvania and Democrats Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee of California, have introduced the Family Life Education Act (H.R. 3469) in response to Bush's proposal. The legislation would grant funds to programs that teach both contraception and abstinence.

The representatives also sent a letter to Bush—signed by 77 state and national organizations—saying no evidence proves that abstinence education works on its own. Increased grants for such programs, the letter said, are "dangerous and unnecessary."

The New York Times reports that an extensive study funded by the federal government is looking at the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs. Preliminary data will be released next year.

Past studies have shown success in abstinence programs. In a 2001 study by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health published in the American Journal of Sociology, researchers found that teens who make virginity pledges stay virgins 18 months longer than those who do not. A University of Minnesota survey backed these findings.

The numbers of those exclusively teaching abstinence in sex education classes have risen 2 percent since 1988, according to a survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. While the growth may not be staggering, The New York Times reports that applying for federal grants is competitive. Of 360 recent applications, only 53 received funding.

The 2000 census found that teen pregnancy numbers dropped in the 1990s from 4,158,000 in 1990 to 3,959,000 in 1999. However, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of teenagers will have engaged in sex before they graduate from high school; one in four sexually active teenagers contracts a sexually transmitted disease.

Bush defended his proposal on February 27. "We ought not to assume that our culture is automatically going to lead a child to defy an abstinence education program," he said. "We ought to try it. We ought to work hard; we ought to shoot for the ideal in society and not get drug down by the cynics."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Recent mainstream coverage includes:

School for Teenage Mothers Teaches Abstinence — Reuters (March 6, 2002)
Spermicide Found Ineffective Against STDs — Reuters (March 6, 2002)
Hands off each other - and that LamborghiniSydney Morning Herald (March 5, 2002)
Bush presses for $135 million to encourage abstinence onlyLos Angeles Times (March 4, 2002)

In the Vancouver Sun, frequent Christianity Today contributor Peter Chattaway wrote the portrayal of abstinence in two recent films. He says: "My beef with a film like 40 Days and 40 Nights is not that it exaggerates the significance of sex, but that it does so to the point where sex seems to eclipse just about every other way of relating to people."