Does AP Stand for 'Anti-Abstinence Propaganda?'

It feels like Groundhog Day, the movie. 

Every time Congress takes up abstinence-only education programs, you can count on the media to trot out a story claiming abstinence-only education doesn't work.  They did it in April of this year with the flawed Mathematica study and they're doing it again with a “new” study put out by the pleasantly-named National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

The Associated Press story, “Report: Abstinence programs don't work” is a classic example of liberal-agenda promotion. From the slanted opening paragraph to the failure to cite or quote even a single advocate of abstinence-only education, the entire piece is a pitch for progressive comprehensive sex education programs.

Just look at the lede:

“Programs that focus exclusively on abstinence have not been shown to affect teenager sexual behavior, although they are eligible for tens of millions of dollars in federal grants, according to a study released by a nonpartisan group that seeks to reduce teen pregnancies.”

You'd never know from this sentence that many researchers have found that abstinence-only education often has significant success in delaying teen sexual behavior, or that the author of the study has a dog in the fight over abstinence vs. comprehensive sex education.

Before digging further into the bias there are a couple of things – just a couple – that AP reporter H. Josef Hebert did right.  First, he identifies the author of the study, Douglas Kirby, as a researcher for ETR Associates, and acknowledges that ETR is a leading developer and marketer of several of the comprehensive sex education curricula reviewed in Kirby's report.  Hebert also acknowledges that several earlier studies reviewed in Kirby's report were written by Kirby himself. 

Here's what Hebert did wrong. 

    He includes no rebuttal from critics of the study, or from abstinence-only advocates.  A fair and balanced report would have included information from the Abstinence Clearinghouse.  In a press release put out November 7 in response to Kirby's study, the organization said: “This study says nothing new that opponents to abstinence education haven't already said. This study indicates clearly that it focused primarily on two previous Mathematica studies among a few others that evaluated abstinence. They are providing no new information but rather the same old distorted information based on a poorly-designed evaluation with weak results.” 

    In reporting that “tens of millions of dollars” in federal grants is received by abstinence-only education, the story fails to report that comprehensive sex education programs (the kind this study reports as effective) receive 12 times as much, according to sources at the Abstinence Clearinghouse.

    The story fails to mention that the “nonpartisan group” that sponsored the study, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, lists as one of its “Trustee Emeriti” none other than ETR's Douglas Kirby, the author of this latest abstinence-bashing study.

Kimberly Martinez, Executive Director of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, told CMI, “This is another effort by opponents of abstinence education to try to influence policy makers with faulty information.”

Another voice AP could have quoted is Kyleen Wright, President of Texans for Life Coalition, who commented on-line about the article, “Liberals and 'sexperts' are trying to rewrite history with their junk science in order to affect the funding debate underway in Congress.”  She added, “The fact remains that during the 1980s, teen pregnancy and birth rates, abortion and STD rates were through the roof, having doubled by the end of the decade. This was when the condom/contraception groups reigned supreme, entering the schools in record numbers while exploiting AIDS fears.… When the devastating numbers were released in the early 1990s, many parents, community activists and organizations began offering abstinence education. As a result, the numbers began to decline immediately, and have declined every year since. We have seen 60-year lows this decade, something the contraception crowd was never able to accomplish.”

AP could have sought out such sources in order to present an unbiased story.  But when it comes to abstinence the media only know one side – the liberal progressive side.  And they conveniently report on it when it suits a political purpose.

For an in depth look at how the media have consistently attacked abstinence see CMI's Eye on Culture Sex, Lies and Bias.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.