Washington Area Women's Foundation

Do rising teen birth rates show need to abstain from abstinence-only education?

Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about how great it was that our regional teenage pregnancy rates were down

And how everyone was so hopeful that this reflected a national trend?


Seems that the rates here in our region may be more the exception that the rule.  The New York Times reports today that scholars were shocked to learn that national teenage birth rates as of 2006 actually rose for the first time since 1991.

Oops again.

The one spot of good news is that birth rates did drop for girls under 14; the increase was noted among teenage girls aged 15-17.

If that can be considered good news.

The largest increases came among black teenagers, but there were also increases among whites, Hispanics and American Indians. Only birth rates among Asian teenagers dropped.  All pointing the way again to the importance of developing culturally relevant strategies to address the factors that lead to teen pregnancy.

The news today is fueling discussion and debate over the Bush Administration’s abstinence-only education policies, which garner $176 million in funding annually. 

According to the article, "A landmark study recently failed to demonstrate that they have any effect on delaying sexual activity among teenagers, and some studies suggest that they may actually increase pregnancy rates."  The article goes on to explain that this could be because abstinence-only education scares young people away from birth control by asserting that it isn’t effective.

In the article, Robert Rector, a senior researcher with The Heritage Foundation, says that such logic is "stupid," arguing that, "Most young women who became pregnant were highly educated about contraceptives but wanted to have babies."

Other theories and perspectives on the data reflected in the article are:

  • Hillary Clinton stated that rates of teenage pregnancy declined during the Clinton Administration due to a focus on family planning.
  • Dr. John Santelli, chairman of the department of population and family health at Columbia University, said that rates declined in the 1990s due to sex rates dropping as a result of fears about AIDS.
  • Kristin A. Moore, a senior scholar at Child Trends, a nonprofit children’s research organization, said the increase in the teenage birth rate was particularly alarming because even the 2005 rate was far higher than that in other industrialized countries.

Whatever the various debates around what is causing the rise in teen birth rates, what is clear is that an effective strategy to combat the trend must be found due to the great impact having a child so young has on young women–for the duration of their lives. 

As the Washington Post article about local rates explained, "Adolescent mothers frequently compromise not only their health but also their future, dropping out of school and struggling financially. Their babies are at greater risk for a host of problems, including low birth weight and abuse, neglect and poor academic performance."

We owe it to girls and women to devote our resources and investments to strategies that are proven to work on their behalf and to pave the way to the brightest futures possible.

And perhaps a few helpful lessons can be drawn from the efforts here in our region, which are showing declines in birth rates.  Strategies used here that are cited by the Washington Post article are:

  • Hosting discussion groups to teach parents how to talk to their kids about love, sex and relationships.
  • Calvert County makes contraception accessible to girls at its family planning clinics for no charge and, except in rare cases, no questions. The approach might explain why the teen birthrate there fell 46 percent by 2005.
  • At the Washington Hospital Center, staff members dispense education, contraception and encompassing support.

Finally, the article states, "Most studies give more credit to teens’ greater use of condoms and other protection and the wider array of options available to them, including such long-acting choices as the birth control patch."

And wherever the research shows, is where I believe it makes sense for the dollars and efforts to go.  Women and girls are worth demanding meaningful results.  

  • Public health student

    Rector’s comment also demonstrates the discriminatory nature of abstinence-only programs – they exacerbate conditions where some groups have complete access to information and resources on sexual health, while others do not. The groups that depend on government programs for information are not given the same choices as those who do not – then we have the nerve to say it was a young woman’s choice to get pregnant when she was 15.

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