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Dueling reasons for the falling teen birthrate

Some credit more contraception, others tout abstinence

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The good news that U.S. teen birthrates are continuing to fall has resurrected the debate about how much credit for the trend should go to contraception and how much to abstinence.

The recent declines in teen birthrates can be linked "almost exclusively" to improvements in teens' contraceptive use, the Guttmacher Institute said recently.

From 2006 to 2010, there was no significant change in the number of teenage girls who were sexually active, but "there was a dramatic shift in teen contraceptive use," Guttmacher researchers said, referring to unpublished tabulations of data from the National Survey of Family Growth.

Teens "are making the decision to be more effective contraceptive users, and their actions appear to be paying off in lower birthrates," they said, adding that such findings make the current "attacks on contraception" in private health plans particularly ill-advised.

To the Family Research Council, however, the falling teen birthrates are the payoff of President George W. Bush's national promotion of abstinence education.

"After eight years of prioritizing abstinence education, the country is finally seeing the fruit of President Bush's emphasis on 'save' sex," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

The council also cited National Survey of Family Growth data: In 1988, 51 percent of teen girls and 60 percent of teen boys had had sexual intercourse. By 2010, these numbers were far lower - 43 percent of girls and 43 percent of boys.

Despite this data, Mr. Perkins noted, the Obama administration is not only trying to defund all abstinence-education grants, but it made teaching abstinence a "unallowable activity" in federal marriage and fatherhood grants.

President Obama "can take away abstinence funding, but he can't take away its effectiveness," he said.

For years, researchers have tried to understand why teen birthrates peaked in 1991 and have declined ever since, except for a brief uptick in 2006 and 2007.

Abortion cannot explain the fewer births because there were fewer teen abortions, too. In 1986, 46 percent of teen pregnancies ended in abortion; by 2008, they fell to 31 percent. Moreover, the 2008 teen abortion rate (17.8 abortions per 1,000 teens) was "the lowest since abortion was legalized," Guttmacher said in a February report.

Other possible factors include stricter welfare laws, prerecession economic opportunities, fear of disease, parental expectations, family structure and religiosity.

John Santelli of Columbia University and others have estimated that 75 percent or more of the decline in teen births is because of more and better contraceptive use by teens.

"It looks pretty clear ... that it's increased use of contraception and more effective contraceptive methods" that is behind the declines, Debra Hauser, president and executive director of Advocates for Youth, said Friday. Also, Medicaid waivers are allowing some teens access to long-acting devices, and more teens are using two kinds of birth control at the same time, she said.

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said abstinence - now known as risk-avoidance - messages "resonate with teens."

Abstinence messages are targeted to 15- to 17-year-olds, and now "about 75 percent of these teens have never had sex, despite the increasingly sexualized culture," Ms. Huber said. Also, teen sexual-disease rates are at historic highs, and it's not a secret that two of the four most common sexual diseases are "easily transmissible," even if someone uses a condom, she said.

The teen-birth decline is tied to abstinence education because its growth "pressured" all sex-education programs "to put that wording in there," said LeAnna Benn, co-founder of Teen-Aid and a veteran abstinence educator. Even today, "when you tell a teenager 'abstinence,' they read in parentheses, 'until marriage,' " she said.

"My concern is that we're going to say that it's because of the contraceptive use," and "subtly or completely" stop talking about abstinence, she said. If that happens, "the skills for boundary-setting and refusal techniques will be lost."

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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