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Teen pregnancies on the rise

By Alice Bradley

The teen birth rate has risen for the first time in 14 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average the percentage jumped 3 percent from 2005 to 2006; the rise was highest in black teens—a whopping five percent.

As if this weren’t troubling enough, last month the CDC released news of increasing rates of sexually transmitted disease. The U.S had over 1 million cases of chlamydia in a single year: that’s the most ever reported, anywhere. We win! Gonorrhea rates also increased, as well as syphilis, which, like teen pregnancy rates, jumped after many many years of decline. To complicate matters more, there’s a new gonorrhea superbug on the rise—a strain that’s resistant to antiobiotics.

What’s going on, here? We’ve been enjoying a steady decline in both STD cases and underage pregnancies for well over a decade. Officials for Planned Parenthood pointed an accusatory finger at abstinence-only sex education. “In the last decade, more than $1 billion has been wasted on abstinence-only programs,” said the organization’s president. They argue that states where these programs are more likely to be used are the ones in which teen pregnancy rates have increased the most. On the other side, the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank, blames contraceptive-focused sex education.

So who’s right? My bleeding-heart liberal self always sides with Planned Parenthood and their kind, but you deserve more than my biased opinions. On the side of the pro-abstinence argument, it’s interesting to note that there’s been an increase in the reported use of condoms. (Although, of course, actual use may differ—teens have been known to prevaricate, now and then.) Could teens using condoms experience a high failure rate? Are they putting them on their heads?

As for the argument that abstinence programs directly correspond to increased pregnancy rates, I couldn’t find state-by-state information, but I did find plenty of evidence that abstinence-only programs are ineffective. Only a month ago, Douglas Kirby, a leading sex education researcher, conducted a study for the nonpartisan group National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. His research found that only a couple of abstinence-only programs have proven themselves even slightly effective. Additionally, he found no evidence that providing information on birth control in addition to promotion abstinence “hastened the initiation of sex or increased the frequency of sex.” A study out of Oxford University also found that none of the studied abstinence-only programs (or “programmes,” as they call them) had any impact on the sexual habits of participating youth.

Some have found abstinence-only to be not just ineffective but downright harmful. Consider this argument by John Santelli, a pediatrician and professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, as reported by the Seattle Times: ” Each of these assertions turns up in federally funded abstinence-only sex-education programs: Condoms fail to prevent HIV infection 31 percent of the time during heterosexual sex. The chances of getting pregnant while using a condom are 1 in 6. And condoms break or slip off nearly 15 percent of the time. Each of them is wrong.” Santelli, along with the ACLU, Advocates for Youth, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States submitted a 20-page document to the Department of Health and Human Services last week. In it, Santelli detailed what he calls “misleading” and “scientifically inaccurate” information.

I couldn’t find a single nonpartisan study that proved abstinence-only programs to be effective in any way. It seems fairly clear that telling teenagers to abstain will not stem the tide of raging adolescent hormones. Teenagers need options, not lectures.

Here’s another statement made by Planned Parenthood: “The United States still holds the dubious distinction of having the highest teen pregnancy rate among the most developed nations. It is time for everyone who cares about teenagers to start focusing on the commonsense solutions that will help solve this problem.”

I don’t think anyone can argue with that sentiment.

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • Virginia Gal

    December 7, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    One Word: Duh!

  • hikooky

    December 7, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    I’m wondering if the rise in pregnancy and STD rates has more to do with where kids are getting their education rather than what sort of education (contraception vs. abstinence) they’re getting. I think if kids have these discussions with their parent(s) (no matter which viewpoint), they’d be more likely to avoid pregnancy and STD’s. I feel for the kids whose parents don’t discuss these crucial topics with them. Maybe these increases have to do with the fact that more kids are navigating these waters without parental input and support nowadays. I don’t know – just a thought.

  • Tara

    December 7, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    I like to think of an old Bill Cosby routine, where he talked about having “the talk” with his kids. How he really didn’t WANT them to do it, but he knew they were probably going to do it anyway, and so he really ought to make sure they were prepared. So each kid got the talk, as well as a brown paper bag of prophylactics and a full discussion on how to use them properly.
    He was completely right, of course. Obviously no parent wants their child having sex at a young age, but the fact is, you’re not there every minute and you can’t control what they choose to do. Better to make sure your kids are prepared to protect themselves just in case. (and Hikooky, I agree that it’s the parent or guardian who needs to have that talk with the child–this is not a responsibility to be delegated to the schools or some other third party!)

  • Mom101

    December 8, 2007 at 12:05 am

    My bff works in AIDS prevention and reproductive health and she’s been saying for years that abstinence programs not only are ineffective, they lead to riskier behavior. It’s as if kids think the sex (or the um…well, other kinds of sex) is okay but that somehow it’s the condoms that are bad.
    What we do to our kids in the name of politics is downright scary.

  • Aranel

    December 8, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    I’m a Republican and agree that abstinence should be taught. However, it shouldn’t be the only method taught. Other birth control and protection should be hand in hand.
    I was brought up in a Christian household and my mother (and father, though not so much) both talked to me about sex. I didn’t have sex until I was 21, but when I did I was stupid and didn’t use any protection. I was lucky in that I was with someone who didn’t have any STDs, and I didn’t get pregnant. Those couple of months of worrying taught me that there’s no way that I’ll just tell my kids not to have sex. If they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it. But they need to be able to protect themselves and their parter.
    On a slightly different note, there are problems with some methods of birth control. The pill never agreed with me (mood swings, depression, crying over nothing…) and I’m currently seventeen weeks pregnant with my first baby. Who dodged that condom like it was nothing. 😉

  • Vanessa

    December 9, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    I’m concerned that someone would equate abstinence as a lecture and not an option. What kiddos need are adults that are there for them and help hold them accountable. It is possible to work through hormones rather than give into them. I do agree that something isn’t effective that is for sure!

  • A.B.

    December 9, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    abstinence only programs work only in a faith based setting where the child believes in God and a God who would prefer they keep their pants zipped for the time being. Even then, it’s really only effective coming from the parents.
    abstinence only comes from a faith based stance and therefore needs to stay in a faith based setting. I full support and expect absitnence from my children (expecting no more from them that what their parents practiced) but I don’t want the schools teaching it to my kids. There’s too much garbage and missinformation in the abstinence programs out there. If the school wants to teach my children how to put a condom on a banana and how to avoid STDs, I’m ok with that. It’s important information. I can teach them the principles that come from our faith myeslf. It’s my job as a parent.

  • Alice

    December 10, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    i’m inclined to freak out about abstinence-only teachings, but i like what A.B. said above. abstinence can (and should, if it’s right for that household) be taught at home. sex ed should still be taught to everyone.

  • dinka

    December 11, 2007 at 8:00 am

    I agree abstinence can’t be taught in school or basically anyone else but the parents. Even “abstinence” is probably the wrong word. It just means NOT to do something, whereas staying celibate until marriage is a different view of the whole person and proposes an understanding of your whole being. Just throwing prophylactics at a kid doesn’t really help either… it’s like: “Here, drive into this wall but wear a seatbelt. You might survive. We don’t care beyond this.”
    The argument “Well, they’re going to do it anyway” doesn’t stand. We don’t propose this for other issues either. “Hitting is not ok, but if you really MUST then go ahead, but make sure you wear a boxing glove!” But we also don’t say “don’t hit” and that’s it, there’s a part of the conversation where we explain WHY an what it does to a person and most of all, where we model the behavior in front of our children every day. It’s a rule of love, just like being faithful to yourself and later to your spouse…

  • Heidi

    December 11, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    I find the above argument about hitting a little flawed, although I agree with her about modeling behavior we expect our children to follow.
    But here’s my point: I tell my kids over and over, “Don’t hit! Don’t hit! Look how sad you’ve made your brother. We don’t hit because it isn’t nice and it makes him feel bad and it hurts and it’s just not right, and mommy doesn’t want you to, and you’ll feel better if you solve your problems with words, and . . .” But they still hit.
    If my kids had the chance of bringing another baby into the world simply by hitting each other and a boxing glove could prevent that, I WOULD TELL THEM TO USE A BOXING GLOVE EVERY TIME THEY HIT! The possible consequences of unprotected teen sex are just too life-changing and serious to be equated with hitting without a glove.

  • the other leslie

    December 11, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    I am conservative and Christian and I was raised that way. I went to a small church and its school. By the time I was 18 I think that about 1/4 of the girls around my age (Oh! and the church secretary!) were pregnant or had had a child. It wasn’t that they avoided sex, they avoided preparing for sex. Like premeditation made it a sin! Our school motto should have been, “We abstain from purchasing contraception! Go Wildcats!”
    My poor kids get all the colorful age appropriate books and painfully casual acting conversations they can tolerate. If they parent a child in their teen years it will have to be on purpose. I just watched a program on Frontline about how the part of the brain that say, “Whoa pardner, let’s reconsider!” isn’t done cooking in teenagers. I say more hovering parents AND more condoms are the answer.

  • Jessica

    December 14, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    I was the abstinence education coordinator (federally funded) for the state of Nevada for 6 years, up until this July. I can assure you and agree that there are NO non-partisan non-slanted articles on the Internet about the effectiveness of abstinence education programs.
    I can also tell you that the programs in real life, as they say, are not evil as portrayed by Planned Parenthood. A typical abstinence education’s goal is to educate children about the benefits of waiting. A good abstinence education program (of which there are thousands in the US) will not demonize contraception, and they will discuss contraception. They will tell the kids of the rates of failure, and what can happen if contraception is used incorrectly. They will remind kids that abstinence is one choice among many, and it is the healthiest choice (strictly in terms of STD contraction and pregnancy prevention; we can ALL agree that not exposing yourself to risk factors means that you CANNOT have adverse effects from that risk factor).
    Abstinence education programs do not exist to supplant or even replace contraceptive education programs. In fact, every abstinence educator I know agrees that sexuality should not be taught in a vacuum; all children need all the information to be as well informed as possible as they make their own choices.
    Abstinence education programs do not say “Just say No.” That is a ridiculous and widespread misconception. They educate on benefits of waiting.
    People want to blame abstinence education programs for the rise in teen births last year. However, federally funded abstinence education programs have been around since 1996, and the rate has fallen since then. If abstinence education programs have not been working, wouldn’t we have seen a rise in teen births over the past 11 years?

  • Melissa

    December 14, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Unfortunately, a lot of bad political compromises have been made.
    In the FY2008 Labor-H spending bill, the total for Title X family planning funds was raised to $310 million, an increase of about $27 million. Guess what else was raised by $27 million? Yup, that’s right, abstinence-only education.
    I think the biggest/best study of ab-only policies was done by the Mathematica Policy folks. As part of the Balanced Budget Act in 97, Mathematica got money to conduct a long-term study. The released the report this past April:

  • Jane

    December 15, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    Hi, I saw your blog on Nablopomo and liked what a Isaw – I captured your url and have you firmaly Faved.
    Regarding this entry, I read not so long ago a report about one effect of the Abstinency programmes (yes, I’m English) – a significant increase in oral and anal gonorrhea. Apparently girls who’ve ‘promised’ still feel the need to provide sexual gratification to their boyfriends and oral and anal sex helps them do that and remain (technical) virgins. Not quite what their priest had in mind I’m guessing.

  • Kate

    February 18, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    My high school taught us abstinence only sex education. Abstinence only sex education is stupid and insulting. The educator tried to tell a bunch of kids in advanced biology that a sperm cell was much much smaller than a virus (!) and would slip through the weave of the latex fabric of a condom… When I raised my hand and used my textbook to call his bluff, I got in trouble. Teenagers aren’t dumb and treating them as they are will not get their respect. All the kids need to know IS THE TRUTH.

  • troubled teens

    April 18, 2009 at 5:33 am

    Informative article! teen pregnancies are rising to a considerable rate, the government has to take result oriented steps to decrease this rate by educating teenagers about the consequences and effects of teenage pregnancies. Parents need to be very careful about their teens by observing any types of new behaviors. Parents need to take professionals help to come out of the problems in a healthy way.

  • Hannah

    May 26, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    I was a young mum. I gave birth to my first child at 16, and my second at 20. My husband was 14 when my eldest was born, and 18 when my next was born. It’s no biggy, but I can understand why people think that