Abstinence only education: no better, no worse

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How can I say that birth control education doesn't work?  my critics cry.  Where's the data?

Here.  The gold standard study of abstinence-only education is a longitudinal study begun in 2001.  There was no significant difference between the students receiving abstinence education and the students receiving the ordinary programs in their school district.  At least half of those programs had comprehensive contraception education.

It doesn't matter what you measure:  STD awareness, assessment of birth control effectiveness, number of partners, age of first sexual intercourse, medical outcomes--there was simply no difference between the two groups.  That indicates that children are not getting useful information either from abstinence-only programs or those focused on birth control.

You can find a more comprehensive list of the lack of contraceptive education effectiveness here.  The upshot:  some programs seem effective, but when you do metanalysis, you find that they're within the expected random variance.

This is less surprising than it sounds.  In the 1950s, such programs undoubtedly would have been very effective.  But these days, a kid who wants to get hold of birth control is very, very unlikely to be unaware where babies come from, or where they keep the birth control.  Anyone who wants to know more can get on the web and Google it.  Also, students pay as little attention to their teachers as possible.  I remember in my extremely affluent high school being shocked by how little my classmates appeared to have retained from literally years of birth control-focused eduction.

Kids get pregnant because they have poor impulse control, hazy conceptions about the future, and possibly, parents who they are afraid will find birth control.  None of these are problems that sex ed helps with.  Moreover, as anyone who's ever been a Big Sister or similar can tell you, poor girls who have babies unfortunately too often do so because there's little reason not to, and they mistakenly believe that this will help them hold onto the baby's father.  What they need is not more education about The Pill, but a better future to look forward to.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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