The Tyee ran an interesting piece today on Canadian sex-ed.  The author argues that abstinence education in the US has been a failure, and that Canada’s approach—comprehensive sex education coupled with good access to contraception—is at the heart of Canada’s relative success at preventing teen pregnancy.

There’s something importantly right about this argument.  And it’s bolstered by its reference to one of the most hilarious illustrations of futility I’ve seen in a while:  this chart, from a 2007 US Department of Health and Human Services study of abstinence education.  In a nutshell, enrollment in a US abstinence education program had no effect whatsoever on teen sexual behavior:abstinence education futility chart

  • That said, the Tyee article seems to stretch some parts of its argument past the breaking point:

    Like those Canada has had for decades, and like some programs that were in place in the U.S. during C. Everett Koop’s tenure as surgeon general (1982-1989), which lead to the 14-year decline in teen pregnancy. After the first reported cases of the virus in the early 1980s, Koop promoted HIV education, which led to a big increase in condom use. Then during the Clinton years, abstinence-only programs started, promoting the virtues of chastity. And voila, teen births.

    Teen births by year, US

    This seems a bit like wishful thinking, and a likely misreading of the available statistics.  Teen births in the US started rising in the mid- to late-1980s—exactly the time when C. Everett Koop was the U.S. surgeon general.  (That period is marked in red in the graph to the right.)

    The rise in teen births continued for several more years, peaking toward the end of the first Bush administration.  It then tapered off, starting in 1992, with declines continuing throughout the Clinton years and well into the second Bush administration.

    That’s pretty much the exact opposite of the trend cited by the Tyee article.  Perhaps there was some sort of delayed effect from the Koop sex ed efforts—I don’t know.  And Koop’s certainly not to blame for the rapid rise of teen births during and immediately after his tenure.

    Still, while it’s perfectly fair to point out what the data does show—namely, that abstinence education has been a bust—I think it hurts the cause to make assertions about the efficacy of sex ed that aren’t at best tenuously connected to the data.