Inner-city black girls who took part in a sex-education program had dramatically fewer pregnancies than a group which did not take part, even though both groups lost their virginity at about the same age, a Johns Hopkins University study has found.
The three-year study, published in the current issue of the Alan Guttmacher Institute's Family Planning Perspectives magazine, showed that among a large group of Baltimore high school girls who were sexually active, about one-fifth of those who participated in a sex-education program for 28 months became pregnant during that time, while about half of those who were not given instruction and counseling conceived.
In the full study group, which also included junior high and high school girls and boys, the girls who were taught about sexuality had their first intercourse at an average age of 16 years and two months, while those who were not in the program lost their virginity somewhat earlier, at 15 years and seven months.
These two main findings seem to contradict the main objection to sex education programs, which is the belief that they promote sexual activity that wouldn't otherwise take place.
"This evidence should lay that ghost to rest once and for all," said Laurie Zabin, director of the social-science fertility research unit at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, who directed the study.
"One of the sad things is that some of the opposition (to sex education programs) take the position that it legitimizes having sex," Zabin said. "That is not the case.
"The evidence is that no one needed any help legitimizing sex. They're already having it. What it legitimizes is consulting professionals and not having babies."
Judie Brown, president of the anti-abortion American Life League lobby, called the research "a sham and a hoax."
Brown, whose organization advocates that people wait until marriage to have sex, questioned the accuracy of much of the study as well as its goals.
"There appears little question," Brown said, "that the major goal of this entire project is to foist dangerous birth-control drugs and devices on our children . . . to create a future generation of sterile, unfeeling, uncaring, contracepting robots dedicated to mechanical sexual activity."
Criticism is nothing new to researchers working in the teen sex field. Another health survey Zabin conducted with black students in the Baltimore schools contained many questions about sex and provoked a controversy among some members of the black community.
George N. Buntin Jr., the executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said that he was concerned that the black community not be used as guinea pigs for a survey that would do nothing but reinforce stereotypes.
'Implementing a Program'
"My concern was doing a survey for survey's sake," said Buntin, who added that he had no objection if it also involved "implementing a program" to address the problems found in the survey.
Buntin did not voice any objection to the teen-age pregnancy survey, since it also offered funding for a program of counseling and medical clinics in the 2 1/2 years the study took place.
"The results they're showing are that they have delayed sexual experimentation and reduced pregnancy," Buntin said. "That sounds good."
Zabin said that populations other than inner-city blacks could derive the same benefits from the sex-education program, which included easy and free access to medical clinics and supportive counseling within the schools.
"If you look at other studies in general you'll find that blacks start having sex a little earlier, but once whites start they have more partners and more frequent coitus and go to clinics less often," Zabin said.
"I believe they (the sex education programs) would work (elsewhere) and I believe they'd work the same way. Young people would understand services are available. And having it close by and having professionals operate in the school makes it all right to talk about it and seek advice."
In fact, Zabin said that the main attraction of the program was the easy accessibility of the staff and of the clinic, "rather than any new information about contraception."
Counselors did encourage the youngsters to delay having sex, according to Zabin, emphasizing that sexual activity is not just something you do but something that can have dramatic consequences for your life and your future.
The first surveys taken revealed an already high level of sexual activity. Almost 92% of the boys in the ninth grade of the school with the sex program were sexually active, along with 54% of the ninth-grade girls. Forty-seven percent of the girls in the seventh and eighth grades had had intercourse.
"I don't know that it (the age of first intercourse) will continue to get any younger," Zabin said. "It may have leveled off a bit. The big changes appear to have occurred in the 1960s and '70s. But even if it does level off I don't see much evidence that it's going away."
In the era of Gramm-Rudman budget cuts, it seems unlikely that funds will be found to duplicate this experimental and controversial program nationwide. But Zabin said that her research team is working on a cost-effectiveness analysis that she believes will show the pregnancy prevention programs to be far less expensive than programs that meet the needs of those seeking abortions, of poor young mothers who drop out of school and of the teens' offspring, who are often poor and suffer more medical problems, including low birth weights.
"If you think of it in terms of cost-benefit ratio," Zabin said, "there is no doubt we can afford it. The question is whether we can afford not to have it."