“Abstinence only” doesn’t work. No, really!


Please note: It’s another Jewish holiday tonight, to be followed by Shabbat. I won’t be back online until Saturday night. Have a lovely weekend, all!

I’ve been hearing all over the place that the Centers for Disease Control are reporting that teen pregnancy rates have dropped like crazy, to their lowest levels since 1946:

“There has been a phenomenal drop in the last two years,” said report lead author Brady Hamilton, a statistician with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vital Statistics. “It went down 9 percent between 2009 and 2010 and that’s big.”

Folks are clear that this doesn’t mean that kids aren’t having sex. Dr. Lawrence Friedman, the director of adolescent medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, reports that the CDC sees a drop in teen sexual intercourse, but:

“That doesn’t mean there is less sexual activity. There’s plenty of sexual activity — oral sex and mutual masturbation and other things that don’t produce pregnancies.”

There’s also increased use of contraception, Friedman said. “In addition, there is more awareness of the negative effects of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” he said.

But here’s the totally shocking part: The states with the highest teen pregnancy rates? Are those with abstinence-only policies. Mississippi tops the lot of them.

I wrote about teen pregnancy back in the day for the Chicago Tribune, and I’m repeating myself a little here, but the truth hasn’t changed a lot in the meantime:

The imperative to reproduce has been getting young Americans in trouble since before there was an America: At the time of the Revolution, some 30% of colonial brides were pregnant on their wedding day, and historians posit that more than a third of births were outside of marriage.

I try very hard not to demonize or belittle teen moms — we need to value all babies, and prepare all those who plan to give birth to be the best mothers they can possibly be. What might have happened in error can result in great joy, and let’s not forget: One teen mom, who married her boyfriend after she fell pregnant, went on to raise our current President. So, you know. We should step lightly.

But all the respect in the world can’t change the fact that giving birth at a really young age is just plain hard: 73% of teenage moms come from poor or low-income families, according to Planned Parenthood; the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports that some 80% of teen fathers don’t marry their children’s mothers. Two-thirds of families started by single moms are poor.

We need to give all young people all the tools they need to avoid pregnancy — not just the tools we may personally agree with — and when another girl gets pregnant anyway, we need to figure out how to provide her with all the support (familial, social, and yes, governmental) she needs to take care of herself and her child.

Oh! And what say we involve the fathers, too?

Kids have sex. It has always been thus. But it turns out that if you arm them with information, they are far less likely to actually get pregnant. And it’s not a whole lot better to withhold information from them if the do get pregnant, either.

Knowledge, as they say, is power. Just ask the girls in Mississippi.



  1. Anon

     /  April 13, 2012

    I think it might be important to note the difference between teen pregnancies and teen births. The study you linked to measured the birth of babies to teen mothers, it didn’t measure the actual amount of teens who became pregnant. A teen who became pregnant and had an abortion, for example, would not show up in these statistics. I think the easier conclusion to draw is not necessarily that state’s with abstinence only education have higher pregnancy rates (they might, but that study doesn’t measure that). It’s that these states have a culture that promotes teens who do get pregnant to keep their children, and not get abortions. It would be interesting to see if the states with the lowest teen birth rates also had the highest teen abortion rates, I wouldn’t be shocked if that were the case.

  2. dmf

     /  April 13, 2012

    for fridays and gods that say yes and not nay to quality of life issues:

    For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
    For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in
    his way.
    For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant
    For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
    For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
    For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
    For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
    For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in
    the spirit.
    For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
    For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
    For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
    For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
    For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.

    Lines from “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]” by Christopher Smart.

  3. jordantsd

     /  April 15, 2012

    It’s hard to believe that abortion rates would be then difference when the state with the max teen abortion rate logged at about 5% per pregnancy in 2006. Unfortunately teen pregnancy and abortion rates are hard to find recent data for. Also abortion rates doesn’t explain why the teen birth rate has been increasing in those states since abstinence only education started to happen when they had been decreasing for quite a long time before