Last month, the New York Times “The Upshot” blog ran a piece by Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. With this piece, Carroll became the latest in a long line of liberal critics of abstinence-based sex-education programs. He mentions that funding for abstinence-based programs increased during the George W. Bush administration. He then cites a number of meta-studies, which purport to show that abstinence-only sex-education classes are ineffective at either reducing or delaying teen sexual activity.
Carroll’s interest in the rigorous evaluation of sex-education programs is commendable. However, like many of his colleagues, Carroll eagerly criticizes abstinence-based programs without evaluating the effects of other types of teen-pregnancy-prevention curricula. For instance, in 2010 the Obama administration launched the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program (TPP), which awards federal grants to local teen-pregnancy-prevention programs that emphasize using contraceptives rather than limiting sexual activity.
The Office of Adolescent Health recently made public two reports evaluating the results of the TPP program’s grants. Several of the 38 programs had achieved some short-term results, but only three of the programs reported long-term reductions in the incidence of unprotected sex. Similarly, only one program reported a long-term reduction in overall rates of teen sexual activity. Nearly all of the evaluations found no long-term difference in sexual activity, use of contraception, or pregnancy rates between students enrolling in these programs and students in control groups.
In his New York Times commentary, Carroll glosses over these inconvenient facts. He claims that the Obama-era programs were responsible for the recent decline in the teen-pregnancy rate, but those rates in the U.S. have been falling since the early 1990s, well before the launch of the TPP program. Unsurprisingly, Carroll criticizes the Trump administration for cancelling funding for 81 projects that are part of the TPP program, lamenting that these projects could “provide us with more data.” But he fails to acknowledge that the existing data already demonstrates that the vast majority of these projects are ineffective.
Overall, the decline in the teen-pregnancy rate is one of the unheralded public-policy success stories of the past 25 years. Teen-pregnancy rates reached their peak in 1990 and have fallen every year since then. In fact, between 1990 and 2010, the teen-pregnancy rate fell by an impressive 50 percent. There exists disagreement among public-health scholars about what led to the decline in this rate, but data from the National Survey of Family Growth clearly indicates that teen sexual activity has significantly declined since the late 1980s. Unfortunately, such evidence is not of interest to authors such as Carroll and publications like the New York Times.