Newswise — New research suggests that comprehensive sex education might lead to less teen pregnancy, and there are no indications that it boosts the levels of sexual intercourse or sexually transmitted diseases.

"It is not harmful to teach teens about birth control in addition to abstinence," said study lead author Pamela Kohler, a program manager at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Parents and educators have long argued over whether students should get instruction in birth control or simply learn how to say no. At issue is which approach will best postpone sex.

Kohler and colleagues examined the results of the 2002 national survey and focused on heterosexual teens ages 15 to 19. The findings — based on responses from 1,719 teens — appear in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

After reviewing the results, which researchers weighted to reflect the U.S. population better, the researchers found that one in four teens received abstinence-only education. Nine percent — particularly the poor and those in rural areas — received no sex education at all. The other two-thirds received comprehensive instruction with discussion of birth control.

Teens who received comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to report becoming pregnant or impregnating someone than those who received no sex education.

The likelihood of pregnancy was 30 percent lower among those who had abstinence-only education compared to those who received no sex education, but the researchers deemed that number statistically insignificant because few teens fit into the categories that researchers analyzed.

While they also did not reach statistical significance, other survey results suggested that comprehensive sex education — but not abstinence-based sex education — slightly reduced the likelihood of teens having engaged in vaginal intercourse. Neither approach seemed to reduce the likelihood of reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases, but again the results were not statistically significant.

The findings support comprehensive sex education, Kohler said. "There was no evidence to suggest that abstinence-only education decreased the likelihood of ever having sex or getting pregnant."

Don Operario, Ph.D., a professor at Oxford University in England, said the study provides "further compelling evidence" about the value of comprehensive sex education and the "ineffectiveness" of the abstinence-only approach.

Still, the study does not show how educators should implement comprehensive sex education in the classroom, said Operario, who studies sex education. "We need a better understanding of the most effective ways of delivering this type of education in order to maximize audience comprehension and community acceptability."

Journal of Adolescent Health: Contact Tor Berg at (415) 502-1373 or [email protected] or visit

Kohler PK, Manhart LE, Lafferty WE. Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. J Adolesc Health 42(4), 2008.

Register for reporter access to contact details

Journal of Adolescent Health (Apr-2008)