New report re-uses old data to target abstinence pledges

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Another new look at old data has caused a stir in the national media, and abstinence pledges are taking another hit just as Congress and the new Obama administration are reconsidering millions of dollars in funding for abstinence education programs.

The latest report, appearing in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, examined 934 teenagers with strong religious backgrounds, 289 of whom took abstinence pledges and 645 who did not. Based on this within-group comparison, the study found that teenagers who took a pledge were just as likely to have premarital sex as those who did not take a pledge; and those who took pledges were less likely to use contraceptives.

However, the study only compared the behavior of strongly religious teenagers to other strongly religious teenagers and made no comparison of this group to teenagers with little or no religious influence in their lives. In other words, the study only looked at how "elites" of a population compared to other "elites" and did not examine this sample's behavior for differences and similarities with the general population of all teens.

QUESTIONS REMAIN

Baptist Press corresponded with the author of the study, Janet Rosenbaum, a Harvard graduate and a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Following are the questions and her answers.

Q: What motivated you to undertake the study at this time? Were you influenced by the growing debate in Congress regarding the funding of abstinence education?

A: This study began as a term paper for Donald Rubin's statistics course at Harvard on the statistical method I use in this paper. It was a great opportunity to apply the method because all the past research had used regression, but matched sampling is a better method.

Q: One of the primary groups you listed as important to your study were pledgers (those who vowed chastity until marriage), yet you excluded those who had married by age 20 to 23 -- ostensibly eliminating data showing the effectiveness of pledging (those who remained chaste until marriage). Why? How many subjects were excluded by your decision? How many of these were pledgers?

A: The study looked at both single and married pledgers and non-pledgers. I found that pledgers married and divorced at the same rates as similar non-pledgers: by age 22, about 20 percent of both groups had married and about 2 percent had divorced. For public health reasons, we are interested in who uses birth control while unmarried because that prevents disease and unwanted pregnancy. That outcome only has a meaning for single people who have had sex.

Q: Previous research shows that ongoing support systems (such as found in faith-based programs) are critical to pledgers' success. What does the research show regarding those who made pledges as part of a program such as True Love Waits -- that involves a pledger's family, friends and church -- versus those who made secular abstinence pledges with more limited involvement of a pledger's circle of key influencers? What does the data show about differences in success between these two types of programs?

A: I know that's a question that Rev. [Richard] Ross [cofounder of True Love Waits] is interested in answering, but I am not aware of any peer-reviewed research on the question. The reality is that most religiously conservative teenagers have sex, according to both my study of religiously conservative teenagers and Rev. Byron Weathersbee's dissertation that found 60 percent of weekly-church attending newly-married couples reported having had premarital sex.

Q: Concerns have been raised about the limitations of your analysis, specifically that the study is based on fewer than 300 teenagers. What kind of confidence should readers have that your findings are representative of the age group as a whole?

A: This paper was reviewed by eight anonymous peer reviewers and I've presented this paper to over 200 statisticians including the statisticians who invented this method, and no one has raised any statistical concerns about the paper as published.

Q: How do you reconcile the success of True Love Waits versus secular abstinence pledges that lack the components that make TLW effective? For instance, trends that have shown U.S. teenagers are having less sex track alongside the introduction of the TLW movement in 1993 and its subsequent use as a tool to encourage purity. Also, TLW has proven effective at reducing the spread of HIV in Uganda, Zimbabwe and other nations. How can you give the impression that abstinence education (as opposed to abstinence plus) doesn't work?

A: The goal of sex education is delayed and safer sex, and we have over 15 abstinence-plus programs proven to meet those goals. By contrast, the Congressionally-mandated study used the best statistical methods to evaluate several abstinence-only programs initially thought the most promising of all abstinence-only programs, and this study found that none of these programs cause delayed sex. In other words, all the evidence finds that abstinence-plus programs accomplish the goal of abstinence better than the abstinence-only programs.

ABSTINENCE LEADER RESPONDS

Ross, in comments to Baptist Press, noted that Rosenbaum's study is "simply a new statistical treatment" of the data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health conducted in the mid-1990s. Most of the news coverage on the effectiveness of abstinence pledges in recent years has stemmed from the behavior of those 289 students, he said.

"Neither the Johns Hopkins analysis nor the original ADD Health Study considered what types of pledges these 289 teenagers made," Ross said. "If this sample included any who had made True Love Waits promises, they were lumped together with all those who had made secular promises as part of school-based programs."

Not all abstinence pledges are the same, Ross said, because True Love Waits promises are made to God in the power of the Holy Spirit with the involvement of parents and supportive peers. And rather than a one-time signing of a card, True Love Waits is a process of moving teenagers toward reaching the goal of abstaining from sex until marriage.

"We know of no secular or even religious campaign that is as comprehensive and life-encompassing in its approach to moral purity," Ross said.

HOME INFLUENCE MATTERS

Columnist William McGurn wrote in The Wall Street Journal Jan. 6 that the mainstream media has run away with a story on the failure of virginity pledges when actually there is positive news in Rosenbaum's study. He referred to Bernadine Healy, the former head of both the Red Cross and the National Institutes of Health, who said the study found that "virginity pledging teens were considerably more conservative in their overall sexual behaviors than teens in general -- a fact that many media reports have missed cold."

McGurn said the real difference in behavior -- including a four-year delay in first sexual activity among religious teens compared to the rest of the population -- is not whether they took a pledge but that they were raised in more conservative and religious homes and social environments.

The parents in such homes, McGurn noted, are not under the impression that an abstinence pledge will inoculate their children. Instead, they strive to teach that sex is a great gift that should be used properly -- and they're up against a culture that "encourages children to grow up as quickly as possible while adults remain locked in perpetual adolescence."

"For these parents, the good news here is that the striking behavioral differences between the average American teen and the two teen groups in this study show that homes and families still exert a powerful influence," McGurn wrote.


Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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