The Left Has It Wrong When It Comes to Sex Ed

For the past several decades, teen pregnancy in the United States has been on the decline. And since the early 1990s, the teen abortion rate has been in freefall. The reasons for this decline are multi-faceted, not the least of which includes the fact that more teens today are practicing abstinence than they were some twenty years ago.

But according to abortion advocates and the Left, teen abortion and pregnancy rates have fallen largely as a result of contraception. This comes as no surprise as a large part of the abortion industry’s business is largely dependent on making teens and young adults reliant on birth control.

A recent report released by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that until recently was affiliated with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, shows that, as of 2011, teen pregnancy was still on the decline. Additionally, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released this past week found that the teen birth rate, as of 2014, has fallen to lowest level ever.

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As result, in-part, of declining teen pregnancy, the teen abortion rate has now fallen to the lowest level ever since the Supreme Court legalized abortion on-demand nationwide in 1973. Guttmacher’s data show that the teen abortion rate fell by nearly 70 percent between 1988 and 2011. Since abortion rates among teens have been steadily declining for the past two decades, the teen abortion rate is likely even lower in 2016.

The decline in teen abortion is not merely a symptom of falling teen pregnancy rates either. Fewer teens who find themselves pregnant are choosing abortion. The percentage of teen pregnancies that end in abortion has dropped to the lowest level since 1974. This may be an indication that more young people are now acknowledging that abortion is not only deadly for their unborn children, but also detrimental to physical and psychological health.

Percentage of pregnancies that end with abortion among teens (15-19 years of age)

According to Guttmacher data, teen pregnancy rates in 2011 were less than half of what they were in 1990.

Unwed teen pregnancy is widely linked to a number of unfavorable consequences for young women. These include diminished educational and career advancement opportunities, as well as reduced financial well-being. As many as 34 percent of teenage mothers never obtain a high school diploma or GED by their 22nd birthday. The infant mortality is also slightly higher for children born to teen mothers.

Granted, many of the adverse outcomes of unwed teen pregnancy may be attributable to background characteristics as well. Many adolescents who bear children out of wedlock often have certain background characteristics, such as divorced parents, low parental educational attainment, and low socioeconomic status, which place them at higher risk of similar adverse outcomes.

Nevertheless, a decline in teen pregnancy is a step in the right direction. There are a number of reasons why teen pregnancy is on the decline. One of the primary causes stems from the fact that an increasing number of teenagers are simply refraining from sexual activity.

According to data from the CDC, more and more teens are practicing abstinence. Since 1988, the percentage of never-married teens who “ever had” intercourse has gradually decreased. By 2011-2013, premarital teen sexual debut had fallen by nearly 14 percent for girls and by almost 22 percent for boys.

Fewer teen pregnancies means fewer lives lost to abortion and the best way to avoid becoming pregnant, after all, is to simply abstain from sex.

The Decline of Teen Pregnancy and Teen Abortion

Unfortunately, the Guttmacher Institute fails to even acknowledge the effect abstinence has had on declining teen pregnancy. Instead, the report’s authors point to an increased use of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) among 18- and 19-year-old women as a reason for the decline. The report’s authors cite an outdated study that found that usage of LARCs (such as IUDs) among women in their late teens increased from only 1 percent to 4 percent between 2007 and 2009. While the authors claim that IUD usage “tripled” over this time, they fail to mention that it only increased to a mere 4 percent, hardly enough to put a dent in pregnancy rates that have been falling steadily and reliably for the past two decades.

The Guttmacher report misses the bigger picture.

CDC data shows that, overall, the use of various contraceptive methods by teens has either declined or increased only slightly since 2002. Where contraceptive methods have increased, teens have largely transitioned to riskier methods.

The percentage of girls using the pill has fallen by over 10 percent. The use of the injectable contraceptive, Depo-Provera, has declined by nearly a third, while use of the patch and the ring have not increased at all. Condom usage and consistency has increased only slightly, but condoms have high failure rates for pregnancy prevention. Withdrawal has increased significantly but, as the National Bureau of Economic Research has found, withdrawal is not associated with lower levels of teen pregnancy. The very linchpin of Guttmacher’s IUD argument isn’t true either. The percentage of teens (15-19 years) using IUDs have actually declined since 2009 down to approximately 3 percent between 2011 and 2013. Pregnancy rates have continued to fall just as fast if not faster since IUD usage and other contraceptive methods have declined.

The only contraceptive method that has significantly increased since 2002 has been the abortifacient morning-after pill (MAP). Teen’s growing reliance on the morning-after pill as contraception is, to be sure, a troubling trend. But to attribute the entire decline in teen pregnancy to LARCs or to the MAP is simply not supported by the evidence.

It would seem then that the far-Left’s obsession with pushing “safer-sex” and contraception in sex education programs has come to naught. Even as fewer teens are being taught about birth control through formal sex education courses, teen pregnancy rates have continued to fall nonetheless.

And while sex ed programs that promote condoms may significantly increase condom usage, they don’t often reduce teen sexual activity. One often cited study by Karin Coyle, et al. found that condom education significantly increased condom usage but did not reduce adolescent’s number of sexual partners or the number of times engaging in intercourse in the previous three months. A study by Douglas Kirby, et al. evaluating the effectiveness of sex ed programs in delaying or reducing sexual activity among teens found that while some programs (including abstinence-only programs) were effective in this regard, the majority of programs (almost exclusively “safer-sex” programs) were not.

And while it may be true that contraceptive usage has contributed to the decline of teen pregnancy, Guttmacher would have us rely upon the massive distribution of contraceptives to reduce teen pregnancy. This would be a disservice to young people on many levels, not the least of which because it would ignore the real physical and emotional health needs of teens.

Indeed, teen pregnancy and the incidence of STIs are not the only risks associated with teen sexual activity. Adolescents who engage in sexual activity are significantly more likely to suffer emotional harm. They are more likely to become depressed and more than twice as likely to attempt suicide. Women who engage in premarital intercourse have also historically been shown to suffer higher rates of divorce later in life, especially if cohabitation is involved.

Not to mention, of course, the fact that reliance on contraception is misleading to youth as condoms have high failure rates, other methods fail to protect against STIs and some, such as Depo-Provera, have been shown to in fact increase the risk of certain STIs like HIV. Other health risks may be involved as well. Depo-Provera has also been shown to significantly reduce bone mineral density, particularly in teens and women in their early 20s, and it is uncertain whether this increases a woman’s risk of osteoporosis later in life.

How can we build on the momentum in reducing teen pregnancy?

Research has shown that teens are far more likely to delay having sex when their parents are involved in constructive ways. Parental discipline and monitoring of teen’s activities and friends, clear communication about parental attitudes about sex, and strong and supportive parent-child relationships are potent safeguards against teen pregnancy. Teens are more likely to remain abstinent when they perceive that their parents care for them and adolescent boys, in particular, are motivated to refrain from sex when parents set high (yet attainable) expectations for them.

Abstinence programs can be effective in reducing teen sexual activity when properly reinforced by parents and community. Several studies have shown that abstinence programs and pledging can be effective in delaying the onset of sexual activity.

According to Kirby, programs that effectively reduce negative outcomes include clear messages about sexual activity, set specific goals on behavioral outcomes, provide information about the risks associated with unwed sexual activity, and equip teens with skills in dealing with peer pressure.

Religious practice can also have a profound effect on prolonging abstinence. Religion and morality remain the number one reasons that American teens consistently cite for remaining abstinent. Regular attendance at religious services, particularly when adolescents take their spirituality and religiosity personally, has also been shown to have considerable effects in delaying sexual activity.

Overall, the signs in declining teen pregnancy and abortion are encouraging, but more needs to be done. Rather than spending taxpayer dollars on massive subsidies for birth control, teens would best be served with programs that give clear messages about unwed sexual activity and which take a comprehensive approach to teen health into account—physically, emotionally and spiritually. For youth with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, improving the prospects of better employment opportunities and improving teens’ personal outlook on future goals could improve motivation for remaining abstinent. But perhaps most important is the role that parents, peers, and role models play.

If measures are carefully taken at all levels of society, from government to family to the individual responsibility that teens take upon themselves, the health and well-being of young people in America would greatly improve as a result.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock.)


  • Jonathan Abbamonte

    Jonathan Abbamonte is the research analyst for the Population Research Institute in Northern Virginia.

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