Does ‘Abstinence-Only Education’ Impact Rates of Sexual Abstinence?

An ongoing debate exists: what works best to lower teen pregnancies? One side advocates abstinence-only education while others are persuaded that comprehensive sex education (including instruction in birth control) is best for students. What does the evidence suggest?

Here’s a graph of teen births by sex education requirement at the State level. Sex education requirement is classified in three ways: 1) State must stress abstinence (red); 2) State must cover abstinence (yellow); and 3) No abstinence required (green).

Teen births by abstinence sex education requirementCohen finds “states that require abstinence-only education have higher rates of teen births than those that do not. States that require abstinence-only be “stressed” in any sex-ed classes average 9.9% of births to teenagers; those that require it be “covered” average 9.0%; and those with no requirement average 7.3%.”

While the above is an interesting descriptive analysis it doesn’t allow one to conclude  any causal association between abstinence education and teen births. Cohen properly points the reader to a more rigorous multivariate study (Stanger-Hall and Hall, 2011), controlling for four possible confounding variables: socio-economic status, educational achievement, ethnic composition and Medicade waivers for family planning. (Benson et al. (2009) found “Medicaid-funded access to contraceptives and family planning services has been shown to decrease the incidence of unplanned pregnancies, especially among low-income women and teens.”)

The authors conclude,

“…increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates. This trend remains significant after accounting for socioeconomic status, teen educational attainment, ethnic composition of the teen population, and availability of Medicaid waivers for family planning services in each state. These data show clearly that abstinence-only education as a state policy is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.”

Other studies appear to support the overall conclusion:

  • Kohler et al. (2008) found that teens who received comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to get pregnant or to get someone pregnant than those who received no sex education. “There was no evidence to suggest that abstinence-only education decreased the likelihood of ever having sex or getting pregnant.”
  • Mathematica researchers (2007) found  abstinence-only programs have “no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence.”


Benson, Gold; Sonfield A; Richards C.L. and Frost, J.J. (2009). Next Steps for America’s Family Planning Program: Leveraging the Potential of Medicaid and Title X in an Evolving Health Care System, New York: Guttmacher Institute. Available:

Cohen, Phillip N. (2012). Family Inequality.

Kohler, Pamela K.;  Manhart, Lisa E. and  Lafferty, William E. (2008). Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health. 42(4).

Stanger-Hall K.F. and Hall D.W. (2011). Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S. PLoS ONE. 6(10): e24658. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658

Trenholm, Christopher; et al. (2007). Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence
Education Programs Final Report. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. Princeton, N.J. Available

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