The Corner

Politics & Policy

Teen-Pregnancy Prevention Programs Are Largely Ineffective

This summer, the mainstream media have lobbed a considerable amount of criticism at the Trump administration for cutting funding to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Program. This program began during the Obama administration and is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. It awards federal grants to local teen-pregnancy prevention programs that emphasize using contraceptives rather than limiting sexual activity. A number of outlets — including the Los Angeles Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Independent, NPR, and Forbes – have criticized the Trump administration’s plan to cut funding for these types of programs.

That negative coverage has included plenty of outrage from grant awardees and the public-health community, but outlets have largely failed to mention the fact that most of the projects funded by the TPP program are, in fact, ineffective. The Office of Adolescent Health has made public two reports evaluating the results of the TPP program’s grants. Several of the 38 programs these reports studied had achieved some short-term results, but only three of those 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.

None of this should come as much of a surprise. There is a significant body of research finding that programs that encourage teenagers to use contraception are either ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst. In 2016, a pair of economists from the University of Notre Dame found that 1990s condom-distribution programs in U.S. high schools resulted in higher fertility rates among teenagers. This summer, two British economists published an article in the Journal of Health Economics finding that recent cuts to sex education and contraception programs in Great Britain actually led to reductions in teen-pregnancy rates. 

This type of evidence has been mostly ignored by the media, though, which have preferred to sharply criticize the Trump administration as frequently as possible. It is unfortunate, if unsurprising, that media outlets seem uninterested in any and all credible scientific research raising doubts about the efficacy of contraception programs.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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