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Alan Guttmacher Institute Press Release

Susan Tew/Chris Kirchgaessner

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EMBARGOED FOR RELEASE: 9:30 AM, TUESDAY, DECEMBER 14, 1999

U.S. PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICTS OVERWHELMINGLY PROMOTE ABSTINENCE, BUT NOT TO THE EXCLUSION OF CONTRACEPTIVE INFORMATION

Still, One-Third Say Instruction Must Be “Abstinence-Only” and Prohibit or Distort Contraceptive Information

Among the seven in 10 public school districts that have a district-wide policy to teach sexuality education, the vast majority (86%) require that abstinence be promoted, either as the preferred option for teenagers (51% have such an abstinence-plus policy) or as the only option outside of marriage (35% have such an abstinence-only policy), according to a new study by The Alan Guttmacher Institute. Just 14% have a comprehensive policy that addresses abstinence as one option in a broader educational program to prepare adolescents to become sexually healthy adults. In almost two-thirds of district policies across the nation those with comprehensive and abstinence-plus policies discussion about the benefits of contraception is permitted. However, in the one-third of districts with an abstinence-only policy, information about contraception is either prohibited entirely or limited to discussion of its ineffectiveness in protecting against unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

“It is unconscionable for young people who attend schools in one-third of districts to be denied basic yet vital information for preventing unplanned pregnancy and STDs. This should be of deep concern to parents in this country,” comments Cory L. Richards, vice president for public policy with the Institute. “Teaching abstinence as the only option outside of marriage an unrealistic approach in which contraception may not be discussed at all or may only be discussed to highlight its shortcomings is very troubling, particularly given the lack of evidence that this approach is effective in postponing teenagers sexual involvement.”

The study, “Abstinence Promotion and the Provision of Information About Contraception in Public School District Sexuality Education Policies,” by David J. Landry, Lisa Kaeser and Cory L. Richards, is published in the November/December 1999 issue of the Institute s bimonthly professional journal, Family Planning Perspectives. It presents findings from the first nationwide assessment at the local school district level of the extent to which sexuality education policy now focuses on abstinence promotion and whether these policies have affected the provision of contraceptive information. On the basis of a nationally representative survey of 825 school district superintendents (or their representatives) completed in October 1998, it examines existing policies across the country (in districts that teach grade six or higher) and how they vary by district characteristics.

The study, conducted before states began implementing any abstinence-only efforts stemming specifically from the 1996 national welfare reform legislation, also examines school superintendents perceptions of the factors that most influenced their policies. The superintendents were asked to choose, from among 11 possibilities, the single most important factor that influenced their district’s current sexuality education policy. One of three factors state directives, recommendations of special school board advisory committees or task forces, or school board actions was named by at least three-quarters of districts. Overall, regardless of their abstinence policy, almost one-half of the districts (48%) cited state directives as the most influential factor.

Superintendents were also asked how supportive they thought their community is of their district’s current sexuality education policy. About half (53%) said that the community is “generally silent” on the issue, 41% reported that their community “strongly supports” the policy, 5% said that the community is divided and fewer than 1% said that it is “generally opposed.”

Among the superintendents surveyed who knew when their current policy was adopted, only 16% said that the policy predated 1990. Over half (53%) said that it was adopted after 1995, and another 31% said that it was adopted between 1990 and 1995. Superintendents were also asked whether their current policy had replaced a previous one. Among districts that switched from one abstinence policy category to another, most of the change was toward abstinence-plus policies. There was no net change in the number of districts with abstinence-only policies.

Other key findings of the new analysis include the following:

  • More than two-thirds (69%) of all U.S. public school districts (covering 86% of students) have a policy to teach sexuality education; almost one-third (31%) of districts (covering just 14% of students) leave policy decisions concerning sexuality education to individual schools within the district or to teachers.
  • Among all U.S. students attending school in a district that includes grade six or higher, 9% are in districts that have a comprehensive sexuality education policy, 45% in districts with an abstinence-plus policy, 32% in abstinence-only policy districts and 14% in districts that have no policy.
  • Over half (55%) of districts with a sexuality education policy in the South have an abstinence-only policy (20 percentage points higher than the national average), while only 20% of Northeast districts have such a policy (15 percentage points below the national average).

“To maintain the momentum in declining U.S. teenage pregnancy rates since 1990, we must ensure that students receive complete and accurate sexuality education that supports responsible sexual and reproductive decision-making,” comments David J. Landry, senior research associate with the Institute. “The provision of accurate information about contraception while supporting the choice of young people to delay sexual intercourse should continue to be a high national priority.”

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The Alan Guttmacher Institute is a not-for-profit corporation focused on reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, with offices in New York and Washington, D.C.

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