Teen pregnancy: It's baaaack

Abstinence-only education is being blamed for a rise in teen pregnancy. But is that the only culprit?

By Carol Lloyd

Published December 6, 2007 8:40PM (EST)

Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its preliminary report on births in America, and some of the news was surprising. For the first time in 14 years, between 2005 and 2006, the teen birthrate rose. Specifically, teen births jumped 3 percent, or an extra 20,000 births.

Organizations like Planned Parenthood and Advocates for Youth have been quick to blame the more than $1 billion that the Bush administration has flushed into the abstinence-only sewer system. Not only are such programs a waste of money, they contend, but now we're also seeing evidence of their evildoing. Since these abstinence-only programs are not allowed to offer information about contraception, teens are entering into sexual relationships without basic knowledge about protecting themselves from pregnancy.

I'm not defending abstinence-only education, but I wonder about how influential it has been. Could abstinence only have visited such a plague of ignorance on our teens? According to the CDC report, the age group with the highest jump in pregnancy rates was the oldest teens: 18- and 19-year-olds jumped 4 percent, whereas 15-to-17-year-olds jumped 3 percent. The 10-to-14-year-old group actually fell -- from 0.7 to 0.6 per 1,000 births. The fact that the rise is highest among older teens makes me think there may be influences other than abstinence-only programs. Do they really not know how to use a condom? After all, these are kids in college or working in jobs, not high school students. It would be interesting to know if access to abortion might have played some role -- or even a growing stigma about having an abortion.

Needless to say, the CDC hasn't reached any conclusions. In a press release, CDC spokeswoman Stephanie Ventura warned that a one-year jump isn't enough to suggest a full-blown trend. On the other hand, Carol Hogue, an Emory University professor of maternal and child health, told the Associated Press that the jump was expected. She noted that teen pregnancy rates and the rise in sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are all part of the same phenomenon. Like Planned Parenthood, she blamed abstinence-only health education programs that have spawned a generation of kids who don't understand contraception.

What's interesting (and troubling) is that the greatest jump in the teen birthrate happened among "non-Hispanic blacks" (aka African-Americans), the group whose birthrate dropped the fastest in the 1990s. The explanations for the drop in teen births among African-Americans were manifold: the success of welfare reform, better economic opportunities, better sex education or some mixture of all of these factors. Whatever the case, in the past 14 years something was working to reduce teen pregnancies. Now that the numbers are rising, it's probably going to take a lot more than telling girls to remain virgins to keep children from having more children.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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