updated 11/7/2006 1:03:42 PM ET 2006-11-07T18:03:42

Most Americans, regardless of their political leanings, favor comprehensive sex education in schools over abstinence-only programs, researchers reported Monday.

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Currently, the federal government champions the abstinence-only approach, giving around $170 million each year to states and community groups to teach just-say-no sex education. This funding precludes mention of birth control and condoms, unless it’s to emphasize their failure rates.

However, critics point out that studies have failed to show that abstinence-only education delays sex or lowers rates of teen pregnancy.

This latest study, according to the authors, suggests that the federal government is out of step not only with research, but also with public opinion.

Of the nearly 1,110 U.S. adults they surveyed, 82 percent supported programs that discuss abstinence as well as other methods for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Half were in outright opposition to abstinence-only education.

Even among self-described conservatives, 70 percent supported comprehensive sex ed., while 40 percent opposed the abstinence-only strategy.

The findings “highlight a gap between policy, and science and public opinion,” said Dr. Amy Bleakley of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and lead author of the new study.

Whether this divide will influence policy-makers is unknown, she told Reuters Health. “We just want to bring this to their attention,” she said.

Bleakley and her colleagues report the findings in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Mixed results
To receive federal funding, abstinence-only programs must meet eight criteria set down in 1996. Among these is the stipulation that abstinence until marriage be taught as the “expected standard of human sexual activity.”

Only a handful of studies have examined the effectiveness of such programs, and the results have been mixed, according to an editorial published with the study.

Many more studies have looked at comprehensive sex ed. and found that some programs do increase condom and contraceptive use, but may also help delay sex, writes Dr. Douglas Kirby of ETR Associates in Scotts Valley, California.

ETR Associates is a non-profit company that researches and develops health programs, including STD and pregnancy prevention programs for schools.

“Until we have strong evidence that particular abstinence-only programs are effective,” Kirby argues, “we certainly should relax the funding restrictions and fund programs (including comprehensive programs) that effectively delay sex among young people.”

Bleakley agreed with that conclusion. But beyond the issue of balance in funding, she said, is the fact that there is evidence comprehensive sex education can help prevent the potential consequences of teen sex — including HIV and other STDs.

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