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June 16, 2001
Column #1033

WHY ARE TEEN PREGNANCY RATES FALLING?

     The teen pregnancy rate hit a new low in 1997, with births falling fast and abortions falling even faster, reported the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week. 

     In 1997, 9.4 percent of all girls aged 15-19 became pregnant. Of 872,000 pregnancies, 55 percent gave birth, 29 percent had abortions and the rest miscarried. The teen pregnancy rate fell 4.4 percent from 1996 to 1997, the latest year with data.

     More important, the teen pregnancy rate dropped 19 percent from its peak in 1991 and was the lowest since 1976 when U.S. records began to be kept. The abortion rate has fallen by nearly a third since 1990, also reaching a record low. 

     However, the U.S. teen birth rate is still the world's highest of modern nations, double that of Great Britain. Four of ten American teens still become pregnant! Their children are likely to be in poverty, have worse health, education and behavior problems. 

     Thus, it is imperative to understand why the U.S. rate has come down at all.

     Two weeks ago, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy issued a report, ''Emerging Answers,'' by Dr. Douglas Kirby. The programs it reviewed had to compare children with a particular strategy to those receiving no extra help, and have a measured impact on sexual or contraceptive behavior, pregnancy or child bearing. 

     Those criteria automatically excluded ''True Love Waits,'' developed by Southern Baptists, an extraordinarily effective intervention in which an amazing one million teenagers have signed a pledge to remain chaste until marriage. Why? Not one study has compared Baptists who take the pledge with teenagers who do not. 

     Why not? Doesn't the Southern Baptist Convention or any Baptist college in this country see the need to gather the data to make a case for chastity to the broader American public? 

     In fact, Emerging Answers found only three studies of abstinence-only programs which met its criteria, and ''None of the three evaluated programs showed an overall positive effect on sexual behavior.'' 

     The Journal of the American Medical Association published results of a National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health which showed that the factor most strongly associated with a delay in the onset of sexual activity was a pledge of abstinence, the cornerstone of True Love Waits. Yet Emerging Answers ignored this study and a number of others.

     For example, STARS (Students Aren't Ready For Sex), which teaches students ''refusal skills'' (''How to say No'') has reached thousands of Oregon students. A 1997 study found 70 percent of students said it helped them abstain from sex. More important, according to the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, ''Rates of sexual involvement among participating middle school students surveyed dropped from 9.7 percent before to 5.3 percent after STARS.''

     Emerging Answers also ignored a recent study by Prof. Peter Bearman of Columbia University which found younger teen boys and girls who took a virginity vow did delay having intercourse one-third longer (about two years) than teens who did not sign on the dotted line.

     Most school sex ed programs simply make a case for ''safe sex'' using condoms or pills to prevent pregnancy. Many actually provide contraceptives. With what result? They ''did not markedly increase the school-wide use of contraceptives,'' said Emerging Answers.

     Some combine that approach with an encouragement of abstinence, with no greater result.

     The program most praised by Emerging Answers is one that was designed by Kirby, the report's author (which smacks of self-interest) called the ''Children's Aid Society - Carrera Program.'' It reports substantially reduced ''teen pregnancy and birth rates among girls...for as long as three years.'' But it ''did not reduce sexual risk-taking among boys.''

     In fact, according to The New York Times, the very expensive, $4,000-per-student Carrera Program found the boys ''actually were more likely to become fathers'' than those in a control group!

     How is that possible? Scott Phelps of Project Reality in Chicago asks, ''If the boys in the program did not reduce their sexual encounters but some of the girls did, whose babies were they fathering? Were the boys simply having sex with girls outside the program?''

     The girls were given injections which prevented pregnancy.

     Abstinence-only programs are a better answer and are working, but their efficacy must be proven.

     ''Those of us who believe abstinence is the answer, need to design good studies because lots of people think it is naive to think teenagers will remain abstinent,'' says Dr. Joe McIlhaney, president of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Tex. ''The only thing that will convince them is good data on programs helping guide young people to remain abstinent or to become abstinent again.''

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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