04/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Science and Sense in the Abstinence Wars

When I read the lead paragraph of this week's news story on the success of an experimental, abstinence-only sex ed curriculum, my first thought was: "Yes, but..."

The Washington Post story, written by Rob Stein, said that the "landmark study" showed that encouraging children to remain sexually abstinent had persuaded "a significant proportion" to delay sexual activity.

"Yes, but..." I thought, having read the abstract and knowing the research was limited to 662 sixth- and seventh-grade African Americans in a Northeastern city. (Rob reported that in his second paragraph.)

Could a program that small be characterized as a landmark study? Was it robust enough to support Rob's observation that results could have "major implications for U.S. efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases?"

Later I realized I had fallen into the Washington trap of, "Yes, but," as in "Yes, what you say sounds interesting but it doesn't agree with what I've previously thought. Therefore it must be wrong or at best, incomplete." We in the nation's capital are quick to dismiss views that don't agree with our own. Admitting there is merit in a position you oppose could mean your position is worth nothing. Insecurity takes the form of disdain.

One sees this in the culture wars over sex education. While warriors on one side argue that young people should be taught to abstain from intercourse until marriage, warriors on the other emphasize that kids should be taught to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Both sides disparage the other. In conversations I heard yesterday, several experts, whom I would characterize as moderate to liberal, pooh-poohed the results of the new study. Yes, they said, the lead researcher was well respected, but the study was reporting old data. Yes, the program might work in inner-city neighborhoods, but nowhere else.

They failed to pay much attention to the fact that the experiment, conducted over two years, was designed and run according to scientific standards which they have long championed.

For example, teachers in the program were instructed not to portray sex in a negative light, not to use a moralistic tone in their discussion, not to include any inaccurate information, and not to criticize condom use. Instructors also were told to encourage abstinence until later in life, not necessarily until marriage. Mod-libs should at least have applauded that.

Conservative commentators ignored the same parts of the experiment, embracing the study's success with abstinence while not acknowledging that the restrictions placed on instructors may very well have contributed to the project's results.

Chad Hills, policy analyst at Focus on the Family, wrote that the study "offers the latest proof we have to add to our growing mountain of evidence that abstinence education works." Robert Rector, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, "This takes away the main pillar of opposition to abstinence education."

It seems reasonable to me to tell sixth and seventh graders (the mean age was 12 years old) not to have sex. It also seems reasonable to be careful how we couch that and to remember that the same approach may not be effective with other groups including older teens.

And it seems imperative that we put aside the "Yes, but..." statements and ideology to embrace and use what science is showing us works with kids.