Page 7


DATELINE TEXAS D oes abstinence-only sex education work? Buzz Pruitt and Pat Goodson, two professors of health education at Texas A&M, can’t say. Not yet, anyway. In the last two years, they have received nearly $360,000 from the Texas Department of Health to do a rigorous scientific evaluation of the state’s 31 socalled “abstinence contractors.” “Everyone wants to know the bottom line,” Pruitt said. “We don’t have that information yet.” They’re not alone. Since 1997, over half a billion in federal funds has flowed into the states to teach abstinence. President Bush has long been a backer of such programs. “We must convince youngsters to resist opening the Pandora’s box,” he told an audience at the 1999 Governor’s Conference on Right Choices for Youth, “not just to avoid death or disease, but to embrace a life that is physically, and morally, and emotionally healthy.” In his 2003 budget, Bush requested an increase of $33 million for abstinence education, for a total of $135 millionall of it without a lick of scientific evidence that these programs do what people want them to: lower the teen pregnancy rate and reduce sexually transmitted infections. What’s taking so long to get answers? Measuring the outcome of a public health intervention like abstinence-only is always tricky, as much for political reasons as for methodological ones. Fortunately for Pruitt and Goodson, their funding comes from the Texas division, not the abstinence program itself, so they are objective and somewhat insulated. But not entirely.They’ve had to build relationships with suspicious contractors, who tend to look on them as “TDH police” and who, all things considered, would rather see the money spent on their programs. “You have to look at the fact that there’s got to be some conflict of interest in an organization that also funds family planning programs,” says Marilyn Ammon, director of the McClennan County Collaborative Abstinence who has called safe sex campaigns conspiracies to create customers for condom manufacturers, is considered something of a hardliner in the community. Back in 1999, the Waco ISD school board refused McCAP’s services, arguing that their existing sexuality curriculumwhich teaches contraception works better than Ammon’s hardline version of abstinence-only-until-marriage. The combative Ammon even called for an audit of abstinence moneywhich stopped Pruitt’s work for several monthsbecause she didn’t trust TDH. Ammon isn’t the only one suspicious. “Philosophically, they’re not a good fit,” says Starla Kelley, a contractor in Amarillo, referring to Pruitt and Goodson. “They came in with a preconceived notion of what abstinence was, and that it didn’t work.” She does welcome the opportunity to find out what parts of her program can be improved. But she’s not happy that a prominent researcher named Doug Kirby is a consultant to the evaluation.Widely considered in the abstinence community to be a “condom pusher,” Kirby’s name is anathema in some circles. Pruitt and Goodson showed up “four years after that train left the station,” as Pruitt likes to say. As a consequence several contractors had already begun collecting data on their own, but in an unscientific mish-mash. “How are they going to get us to abandon the efforts we’ve already come up with?” says Bonnie Auburn, the director of a 10county abstinence-only program in Paris,Texas.”They’re going to have their work cut out for them.” McCAP in Waco and Worth the Wait in Pampa have already hired Jeff Tanner, a professor of marketing at Baylor University, to evaluate their programs. One of Pruitt and Goodson’s first steps was to spend about $10,000 to purchase 40 different sets of abstinenceonly curricula, which are used in various ways by the state’s 31 contractors. It is now the largest such collection in the state. In a small white office in College Station, two floor-to-ceiling bookcases are crammed with large plastic tubs, each of which contains an abstinenceonly curriculum and its teacher’s guide, activity packets, videos, and games. The curricula have titles like,”Baby,Think it Over,” “Not Me, Not Now,” and “Character Counts,” and they’re not cheapprices ranged from $350 to $1,500, highlighting the business side of abstinence-only. Three schoolteachers spent a summer evaluating each curriculum, then assigning it a quality score. As a sign of the times, they borrowed criteria from both sides of the teen sex debatesfrom ETR Associates, the California-based educational publishing company where Doug Kirby works, and from the pro-abstinence-only Medical Institute, based in Austin. The move is less ecumenical than it appears: Without its point of view represented, each side is more apt to cry foul. Next the researchers broke down the contractors’ 31 grant proposals to TDH, which represented a variety of approachessome work in schools, others in health care settings, while some gather youth after school or educate parents. Pruitt and Goodson boiled it all down by asking one question: How will the programs teach and pro Worth the Wait? The Slow Work of Evaluating Abstinence Education BY MICHAEL ERARD 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/12/02