The Corner

Contraception Programs and Teen Pregnancy Rates

This week Slate featured a piece by Amanda Marcotte discussing why New York has lower teen-birth rates than Mississippi. Not surprisingly, Marcotte blames abstinence-only sex education programs in Mississippi and praises New York’s contraceptive-friendly policies. She favorably mentions a pilot program recently started in New York public schools which allows students to obtain contraception — including emergency contraception — directly from the school. Of course, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed out, Marcotte forgot something. A major reason why New York has a lower teen birthrate is because New York teens are far more likely to abort unwanted pregnancies. Mississippi has a pro-life parental-involvement law in effect, while New York has none.

Now in fairness to Marcotte, Mississippi still has a higher teen-pregnancy rate than New York. However, she, like countless other mainstream-media pundits, is wrong to blame Mississippi’s sex-education policies for the disparity. Many journalists point to the high teen-pregnancy rates in “red” states as proof that abstinence-only sex education programs are ineffective. However, this analysis is flawed for several reasons. First, not every southern school district has adopted abstinence-only sex education. Second, poverty rates are a key determinant in teen-pregnancy rates and many southern states have a high incidence of poverty. Third, the average age of marriage is much lower in many southern states, so some percentage of these teen pregnancies are carried by older teens who are married.

In her article, Marcotte argues that teen sex is inevitable and loudly voices her support for teen contraception programs. As always, the hypocrisy is astounding. Many pro-choice pundits cite a number of studies that purportedly show that abstinence-only sex education is ineffective at curbing teen sexual behavior. However, they are unwilling to subject their own ideas to the same level of empirical scrutiny. Marcotte fails to cite one academic study showing that greater contraceptive availability or more contraceptive spending will lower teen pregnancy rates.

In fact, there is good reason to believe that a more contraceptive-friendly approach to sex education will be ineffective or even counterproductive. A 2012 Centers for Disease Control study of 5,000 teen girls who gave birth after unplanned pregnancies found that only a small percentage had difficulty accessing contraception. Furthermore, in 1999 the British government launched its Teenage Pregnancy Strategy program, the goal of which was to cut the number of teen pregnancies in half by promoting comprehensive sexual education and birth control. Since then, some £300 million ($454 million) has been spent on this initiative. Unfortunately, the British teen-abortion rate has climbed steadily.

In fact, in 2009, the LondonDaily Mail reported that teen-pregnancy rates in England are now higher than they were in 1995 and pregnancies among girls under 16 (below the age of sexual consent) are also at the highest level since 1998. Unfortunately, stories about the failures of contraception programs both at home and abroad typically receive scant attention from the mainstream media.

Michael J. New — Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C. He received a ...

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