For more than three decades, the so-called pro-life movement — of which I was once a participant — has claimed to uphold sexual morality and the sanctity of human life, even as it promoted policies which encourage unsafe sex, untimely pregnancy, and abortion among women who are presented with no alternatives.

A new study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health finds that “pro-life” abstinence-only programs — marketed by the religious right, funded by the Bush administration, and imposed upon public schools in conservative school districts across the United States — may achieve the opposite of their intended objectives.

According to The Washington Post, the study focused on “virginity pledges,” a core element of abstinence-only education:

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a “virginity pledge,” but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

“Taking a pledge doesn’t seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,” said Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose report appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics. “But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking.”

The study is the latest in a series that have raised questions about programs that focus on encouraging abstinence until marriage, including those that specifically ask students to publicly declare their intention to remain virgins. The new analysis, however, goes beyond earlier analyses by focusing on teens who had similar values about sex and other issues before they took a virginity pledge.

Focus on the Family continues to promote unsafe and disease-prone sex — and resulting unwed pregnancy — even as it condemns comprehensive sex-education programs which teach youths how to prevent disease and avoid pregnancies that — as such a young age — often end in abortion.

In a Dec. 16 article, Focus on the Family blames comprehensive sex education for disturbing stats on pregnancy and abortion at a school in urban Alexandria, Virginia — but fails to tell readers that the outcomes of abstinence-only programs are generally just as bad or worse. Focus also falsely insinuates that comprehensive sex ed does not educate teen-agers about abstinence.

In the view of Focus on the Family, teen-agers must remain ignorant of how to protect themselves, apparently for fear that mere mention of a behavior will encourage it. Furthermore, Focus apparently believes that — by protecting teen-agers from knowledge of any alternatives — teen-agers can be fooled into believing that abstinence until marriage is really their only option.

But the latest study suggests that the Focus myth — that youth behavior can be controlled through an echo chamber of abstinence-only misinformation and ignorance — isn’t working in practice.

The study tracked approximately 900 youths for five years, beginning in 1996.

By 2001, Rosenbaum found, 82 percent of those who had taken a pledge had retracted their promises, and there was no significant difference in the proportion of students in both groups who had engaged in any type of sexual activity, including giving or receiving oral sex, vaginal intercourse, the age at which they first had sex, or their number of sexual partners. More than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, had an average of about three sexual partners and had had sex for the first time by age 21 even if they were unmarried.

“It seems that pledgers aren’t really internalizing the pledge,” Rosenbaum said. “Participating in a program doesn’t appear to be motivating them to change their behavior. It seems like abstinence has to come from an individual conviction rather than participating in a program.”

While there was no difference in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases in the two groups, the percentage of students who reported condom use was about 10 points lower for those who had taken the pledge, and they were about 6 percentage points less likely to use any form of contraception. For example, about 24 percent of those who had taken a pledge said they always used a condom, compared with about 34 percent of those who had not.

Rosenbaum attributed the difference to what youths learn about condoms in abstinence-focused programs.

“There’s been a lot of work that has found that teenagers who take part in abstinence-only education have more negative views about condoms,” she said. “They tend not to give accurate information about condoms and birth control.”

Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy asks the Washington Post:

What have we gained if we only encourage young people to delay sex until they are older, but then when they do become sexually active — and most do well before marriage — they don’t protect themselves or their partners?

But Focus on the Family has already answered that question: Focus actively encourages young adults to marry early — without preparation and with too little money and career stability to support a family. Focus social policy ensures that young unwed couples will become pregnant and either marry or abort due to an absence of alternatives.