After having stonewalled public requests for months, the Obama administration relented this past week in releasing a taxpayer-supported study on the attitudes and opinions of adolescents and their parents regarding sex, abstinence, and abstinence messages.
The 2009 study, titled the “National Survey of Adolescents and Their Parents: Attitudes and Opinions about Sex and Abstinence,” was prepared by Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates for the Family and Youth Services Bureau, the Administration for Children and Families, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It revealed, among other pro-abstinence findings, that the majority of parents surveyed favor their adolescents receiving abstinence messages from multiple sources. Ordered from most preferred to least preferred, parents favored abstinence messages delivered at a place of worship (85 percent), a doctor’s office or health center (85 percent), school (83 percent), a community organization (71 percent), and the internet (55 percent).
The study also examined where adolescents were exposed to information about sex and abstinence.
According to the study, adolescents largely learned in school how to resist pressures to have sexual intercourse, with 93 percent saying that is where they were exposed to the information. Only 34 percent said they exposed to the information in a place of worship; 21 percent from a doctor’s office, health center or health care clinic; 11 percent from a community organization; and 7 percent from some other place.
As for how babies are made, pregnancy or birth, 97 percent of adolescents said they learned in school; 31 percent in a place of worship; 24 percent from a doctor’s office, health center or health care clinic; 13 percent from a community organization; and 6 percent from some other place.
And when it came to the abstinence message – waiting until marriage to have sexual intercourse – 80 percent of adolescents said they were exposed in school; 53 percent in a place of worship; 18 percent from a doctor’s office, health center or health care clinic; 11 percent from a community organization; and 8 percent from some other place.
Notably, however, 68.3 percent of adolescents identified a family member as the preferred source of information about sex and sexual issues, with mothers being the most favored source (43.9 percent). Only 8.7 percent said a teacher was the preferred source – the fourth most popular after friends (17.4 percent) and fathers (13.7 percent).
“In general, our findings indicate that adolescent attitudes about sex and abstinence are more subject to influence from parents and peers than to messages about sex and abstinence delivered in the context of classes or programs,” the authors of the study concluded. “However, adolescent receipt of information about sex, abstinence, and sexual values in a class or program was associated with increased levels of adolescent communication about sex and abstinence with both parents and peers.”
Following the release of the study, Valerie Huber, executive director of National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA), expressed “great concern” over the sex education policy that is being implemented by the Obama administration, which she said does not reflect the values of what most parents and teens clearly want.
"It is important that the representative government reflects the desires of its constituents,” she commented a day after the study’s release. “This study's findings call for a reinstatement of funding for abstinence education within the next fiscal budget."
On Sept. 30, more than 170 abstinence programs will lose funding for their abstinence-centered programs because Congress and the Obama administration canceled all grants going to abstinence-centered programming in their FY2010 budget.
Some programs, NAEA reported, will lose their funding midstream in their five-year grant award.
“This means that nearly two million students will return to school without the skill-building lessons they have come to expect in their abstinence education classes,” the organization added.
It was for this and other reasons that the NAEA mobilized grassroots pressure on the Obama administration to release the study after some of its findings were released in conferences last year and in an executive level report that was made available online.
Dr. Lisa Rue, who wanted to see the full study after first hearing about it in a conference, was among those who were denied access after formally requesting for it via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
According to Rue, the Obama administration denied her request, citing an FOIA exemption that permits withholding information that is “predecisional” and “deliberative.”
But after a second denial months later, Rue sounded off, arguing that enough time had passed for closed-door deliberations to take place.
“It is time for openness and dissemination, which is what we expect from an administration that is advocating change in our society,” she expressed in an editorial in the Times Call. “It is time to invite the people in to weigh the facts and have a voice in the type of prevention and heath promotion programs offered via school districts and community based organizations.”
With help from the NAEA, hundreds submitted FOIA requests earlier this month for public release of the findings.
Following the study’s release, the NAEA called into question whether recent sex education policy decisions truly reflect cultural norms or clear evidence-based trends.
“Teen-sex advocacy groups have pushed for an end to abstinence education funding, despite the fact that a recent HHS study showed most teens and their parents support the core message of the program,” the organization noted.
“If we are truly interested in learning how to prevent two critical epidemics currently devastating our country (out-of-wedlock child bearing and sexually transmitted infections) then the nationally representative findings provide momentum and support for accessing cultural values of parents and children which promote optimal health choices for adolescents,” added Rue.
For nearly two decades, the teen birth rate in the United States has been dropping and according to the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, there were 41.5 births per 1,000 teenagers aged 15-19 years in 2008.
Between 2005 and 2006 there was an increase in teen birth rates, which abortion rights groups said coincided with an increase in "rigid abstinence-only-until-marriage programs" that received a boost in funding under the Bush administration.
Pro-lifers, however, suggested that there may have been more teen pregnancies because of Planned Parenthood's increased lobbying against abstinence programs. Only when it became popular to teach the abstinence message to teens did the pregnancy rates begin to fall in the early 1990s, contended groups such as American Life League.
Notably, after another increase in 2007, the birth rate for teens aged 15 to 19 dropped to the figure recorded for 2008. Teenagers that year accounted for 22 percent of all nonmarital births.