The study found this approach more effective than the abstinence-only sex-ed that the federal government has promoted for years.

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Students who receive comprehensive sex education are half as likely to become teen parents as those who get none or abstinence-only sex education, according to researchers at the University of Washington.

What’s more, teens who had comprehensive education, which typically discusses condoms and birth-control methods as well as abstinence, were no more likely to engage in intercourse than peers who were taught just to say no to sex before marriage, researchers said.

The study is the first time researchers have taken a national sampling of teenagers to compare the effectiveness of the two approaches to sex education. And it echoes other studies that have previously suggested that the federal government’s decadelong promotion of an abstinence-only curriculum isn’t deterring young people from having sex.

UW researchers analyzed records of 1,719 straight teens aged 15 to 19 taken from a 2002 federal survey on families. Sixty-seven percent of the adolescents had taken comprehensive sex-education classes; 24 percent had received abstinence-only education, which emphasizes the safest sex is no sex and which discourages premarital sex. The remaining 9 percent received no sex education.

When differences in race, age, gender and family makeup were taken into account, students who’d had comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to report a pregnancy than those without any sex education and 50 percent less likely than the abstinence-only group.

Neither comprehensive nor abstinence-only education appeared to affect the odds that a teen would contract a sexually transmitted disease.

Pamela Kohler, the study’s lead author and program manager for UW’s Center for AIDS and STD, said the findings should help steer public policies toward programs that are proven to prevent unplanned pregnancies and diseases.

“We’re building more and more evidence that [abstinence-only] education isn’t having much effect,” Kohler said. “Ultimately, what happens is that people have sex” eventually.

The federal government has endorsed abstinence-only programs for more than a decade. Congress has spent more than $1.5 billion since 1996 on the Title V Abstinence Education Program, and recently renewed it through June 30. Conservative groups, including The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, contend that abstinence programs help delay sexual activity and reduce illegitimate births.

Under a 2007 law, schools in Washington that offer sex education must provide scientific, comprehensive education. Some abstinence programs discuss contraceptives and other safe-sex tools but emphasize their failure, not success, rates.

Carole Miller, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, argues that abstinence supporters are putting their cultural values above the health of young people.

Compared with other developed nations, Americans have higher rates of teen pregnancy, abortion rates and prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. The evidence is compelling, Miller believes, that more and accurate information about sex for teens is the most effective approach.

Abstinence messages are “not working and we’ve got to stop it,” Miller said. “There are kids getting hurt by this.”

LeAnna Benn, national director of Teen-Aid, a Spokane-based group that supports abstinence, questioned the study’s conclusions. Benn contends that comprehensive abstinence programs can work, but that even abstinence students are exposed to implicit messages that premarital sex is acceptable as long as they do it safely.

“If you take kids to McDonald’s, what’s the likelihood that they’ll have a Big Mac?” she asked.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or