NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Should Doctors Advise Young People To Abstain From Sex?

December 15, 2000

Against a background of high rates of teenage conceptions and an increasing level of sexually transmitted infections, a debate in this week's British Medical Journal considers whether advising abstinence is an effective response to declining teenage sexual health.

Abstinence makes sense and is effective, argues Trevor Stammers.

  • Up to 80 percent of unplanned pregnancies result from failed contraception.
  • Early intercourse carries greater risks and often leads to subsequent regret -- only two-fifths of respondents in a recent study indicated that first intercourse occurred "at about the right time;" 45 percent of girls and 32 percent of boys say it happened "too early" or shouldn't have happened at all.
  • Sexually active teenagers are also more likely to be emotionally hurt and have an increased risk of depression and suicide.
  • Abstinence programs from the U.S. also show "a sharp reduction in the number of pregnancies."

Easier availability of contraception and more explicit sex education at an earlier age are tired and inadequate responses to declining teenage sexual health, says Stammers.

  • In 1995-7, the rate of increase in gonorrhea among 16-19 year olds in Great Britain was 45 percent -- the highest increase seen in any age group.
  • In England alone, almost 90,000 teenagers became pregnant in 1997; slightly fewer than 7,700 of these girls were less than 16 years old, and about half had abortions.
  • During the same period and in the same age group, the incidence of chlamydia rose by 53 percent and that of genital warts by 25 percent.

A researcher on sexual conduct and sex education, says the answer lies in promoting greater openness about young people's sexuality.

  • Indeed, countries such as Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands -- where teenage conception rates are considerably lower than in the United Kingdom -- have an earlier and more open approach to sexual issues in schools and families.
  • A recent study of over 400 adolescents clearly showed that where parents, especially mothers, were the major source of sexual information, their adolescents' sexual behavior was less risky.

Source: Trevor Stammers and Roger Ingham, "For and against: Doctors should advise adolescents to abstain from sex," British Medical Journal, December 16, 2000.

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