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Study Will Examine Effectiveness of Sex Ed. Approaches

Mathematica Policy Research was awarded a contract this week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to study the effectiveness of sex education programs in preventing teenage pregnancy.

The topic is timely because lawmakers in the U.S. Congress are in the midst of deciding how much money to authorize for sex education—and for what kinds of approaches—in health care reform legislation, which I just wrote about for Education Week. The health care legislation approved by the U.S. House of Representatives authorizes funding only for "comprehensive" sex education programs, which urge youngsters to delay sexual activity and aim to reduce the number of partners they have, but do not focus on abstinence. Such programs have a strong goal of increasing the use of contraceptives among teenagers.

The health care reform bill proposed by Democratic senators this week includes funding both for comprehensive sex education programs and for abstinence-based programs, which may discuss contraceptives but only in a context of how teenagers should abstain from sex.

The contract landed by Mathematica is an eight-year random assignment evaluation that is intended to document evidence on effective ways to reduce teen nonmarital sexual activity, pregnancy, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

A panel of health experts appointed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released an analysis of studies on different approaches to sex education. It found that comprehensive programs that teach about contraceptives and safer sexual practices help to reduce teenagers' risky sexual behavior and decrease the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The panel didn't find evidence that abstinence-based programs are effective in doing the same.

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