Planned Parenthood pounced quickly after the Centers for Disease Control released a report last week on state variations in teen births. In a press release, Planned Parenthood asserted that the CDC report “makes it crystal clear that the teen birthrate is lower in states” where permissive sex education focuses on increasing condom use.
The mainstream media immediately seized the opportunity to publicize the view that abstinence education promotes teen pregnancy. This slant is peculiar since, historically, promotion of abstinence education has coincided with a sharp and unprecedented drop in teen birthrates.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, during the two decades prior to creation of federal abstinence-education funding, the birthrate of girls under age 18 did not decline. Indeed, during the safe-sex, condom mania of the 1980s, teen birthrates increased. However, after the advent of federal abstinence programs in the mid-1990s, the birthrate of girls under 18 began an unprecedented, long-term decline. The birthrate of girls ages 15 to 17 dropped by a third: from 3.5 births per 100 girls to 2.1.
Although it would be inaccurate to attribute all of this decline to abstinence education, it’s quite odd to suggest that the push to teach abstinence somehow increased teen births. (Incidentally, over a dozen scientific evaluations show that abstinence programs reduce teen sexual activity.)
True, CDC data show that socially conservative Southern states (which tend to favor teaching abstinence) have higher teen birthrates than liberal Northeastern states. This is so even when white, black, and Hispanic girls are considered separately.
But an almost identical state-by-state variation existed in 1990, before abstinence programs were a factor. As the CDC report indicates, state variation in teen births is heavily affected by long-term socioeconomic and cultural differences. What’s more, a state’s teen birthrate can be strongly influenced by the teen abortion rate. States with permissive sex-ed policies tend to have substantially higher rates of teen abortion. For example, the CDC report lauds California, New York, and New Jersey for relatively low teen birthrates. But it isn’t because those states have low pregnancy rates, it’s because they lead the nation in promoting abortion among teenage girls.
Contrary to the breathless claims of Planned Parenthood, there is no evidence that states with liberal sex-ed policies have lower teen-pregnancy rates. In fact, the evidence suggests that, after adjusting for important racial differences among states, those with liberal sex-ed policies actually have higher rates of pregnancy for girls under 18.
Sex-ed programs promoted by Planned Parenthood and its allies in the Obama administration teach that it is okay for teens to have sex as long as they use a condom. Virtually no parents support this idea. Even teens tend to disagree with it. But Planned Parenthood’s message to teens is brutally simple: Hook up, have sex, but use that condom; if it doesn’t work out, we’ll fix things with a taxpayer-funded abortion.
Teens, and society as a whole, deserve a better, more humanizing, message.
– Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, where Rachel Sheffield is a research assistant.