Abstinence and abstinence-only education: a review of U.S. policies and programs

J Adolesc Health. 2006 Jan;38(1):72-81. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.10.006.


Abstinence from sexual intercourse is an important behavioral strategy for preventing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy among adolescents. Many adolescents, including most younger adolescents, have not initiated sexual intercourse and many sexually experienced adolescents and young adults are abstinent for varying periods of time. There is broad support for abstinence as a necessary and appropriate part of sexuality education. Controversy arises when abstinence is provided to adolescents as a sole choice and where health information on other choices is restricted or misrepresented. Although abstinence is theoretically fully effective, in actual practice abstinence often fails to protect against pregnancy and STIs. Few Americans remain abstinent until marriage; many do not or cannot marry, and most initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual behaviors as adolescents. Although abstinence is a healthy behavioral option for teens, abstinence as a sole option for adolescents is scientifically and ethically problematic. A recent emphasis on abstinence-only programs and policies appears to be undermining more comprehensive sexuality education and other government-sponsored programs. We believe that abstinence-only education programs, as defined by federal funding requirements, are morally problematic, by withholding information and promoting questionable and inaccurate opinions. Abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental human rights to health, information, and life.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior
  • Child
  • Female
  • Financing, Government
  • Health Status
  • Human Rights*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Morals
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy in Adolescence / prevention & control
  • Public Policy*
  • Sex Education / ethics*
  • Sex Education / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Sexual Abstinence*
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Sexuality
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / prevention & control
  • United States