Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Teen Pregnancy:
It's the Birth Control, Stupid

In a rigorous new analysis published in the journal PlosONE, Professors Kathrin Stanger-Hall and David Hall, both from the University of Georgia, have assessed the relationship between a state's sex education policy and its rates of teen pregnancy and birth.

In a conclusion that comes as a surprise to absolutely freaking no one, states with teach-only-abstinence policies had higher rates of teen pregnancy, and the effect remained significant even after controlling for confounders such as overall education level (as measured by the % of high school graduates who took the SAT); Medicaid waivers (an indicator of how easy it is for uninsured/poor people to get birth control and other health services); racial composition of the teen population (black and hispanic teens have higher rates of teen pregnancy and birth, so states with higher % of those groups have higher rates); and income.

The conclusion drawn is that, obvs, we need to be providing better (read: any) sex education to teens. But the Professors Hall mention a factor often neglected by researchers looking at abstinence programs: the often total absence of formal preparation for those teachers in public schools who actually might teach sex education, be it abstinence-only or comprehensive. As someone who teaches future teachers, I know that even those who are in kinesiology/health education programs and are likely to be responsible for sex ed as health/gym teachers and/or coaches, that the courses offered by the department at my University are limited in scope and not mandatory.

One point of disagreement I have with the Halls' conclusions is their claim that the cause of wildly disparate rates of teen pregnancy in Europe and the US is due to sex education. On the contrary, teens in [some] Europe[an countries] are provided with excellent sex education and have access to the full spectrum of reproductive health services, including birth control, often at clinics in their schools.

Sex education matters, yes, but access to services is more important. Teens do not have sex for the purpose of avoiding pregnancy--they have sex because sex is fun. If adults and policymakers want teenagers to use birth control, they will--but we have to teach them how to use it and help them figure out how to get it instead of erecting [heh] insurmountable barriers to keep them from avoiding pregnancy and spreading STIs.

Teen sexuality is like the Titanic--no matter how much distracting music we play on deck, the ship is definitely going down. No amount of abstinence education can stop teenagers--who are (for the most part) at their peak reproductive capacity--from having sex. But considering that the House's recent budget proposal included renewed funding for the terrible, horrible, no good very bad Community Based Abstinence Education program (Read: federal government gives money to religious organizations to provide "education" in public schools and make cheesy PSAs), this country is still letting the ship sink without enough lifeboats for everyone.


A great resource that provides education and links to services is Bedsider, which features interactive tools about birth control methods and a clinic finder.


  1. It's not like the titanic. Teens having sex is not a disaster. It's fun, normal, and developmentally appropriate. It only seems like a disaster because they don't have access to birth control or STI protection or sex education that includes information about consent and healthy relationship dynamics.

  2. Thanks for your comment! My use of the titanic metaphor is more about the inevitabily of teens having sex, hence the uselessness of efforts (ie, abstinence education as playing violins as it goes down) to try to stop it. I don't think teen sex is a disaster, not at all.