Something funny is happening with teen pregnancy statistics in New York City, and it seems some journalists are being played by some politicians, willingly or unwillingly.
Let’s take as a reference point the article published by Sue Edelman of the New York Post in last Sunday’s paper revealing that the New York City Department of Education had distributed 28,480 doses of Plan B from 2009 through 2012 at some 40 school-based health clinics. Add to the mix an article published on the New York Daily News website last Saturday evening, reporting that the teen pregnancy rate in New York City had dropped 27 percent from 2001 to 2010, with several quotes from Health Commissioner Tom Farley citing a report to be released Sunday. Enter the Gothamist, a popular New York City news blog, to tie the two together with the requisite headline: “Parents Outraged… Despite Results.” Voila: It’s the smart set versus a couple of retrograde parents, as Education News reports: “The Gothamist reports that the pilot program has the support of statistics…. But pragmatic success isn’t everything.”
Pragmatic success isn’t everything, but in this swift and sloppy media narrative, it is an indisputable fact.
Except that it isn’t. There are two problems with this narrative: One has to do with the New York City teen pregnancy data which was supposed to have been released on Sunday, and the other has to do with 15 peer-reviewed studies of emergency contraception access programs.
The first problem with the new teen pregnancy data Commissioner Farley promised to the Daily News is that we never got it. The latest data available on the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s website covers the years 2000 to 2009. No new report covering 2001 to 2010 is available on their site. Between 2000 and 2009, there was a 20 percent decrease in the rate of teen pregnancy in New York City, very closely in line with the national trend. More curious still, the numbers reported by the Daily News, allegedly from a forthcoming new report, don’t match the data in the existing report, which shows a teen pregnancy rate of 97.0 per 1,000 in 2001, while the Daily News reports a rate of 98.8.
It is odd that NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene revised upwards numbers that are over 10 years old for a new report; the kids lucky enough to survive until birth in 2001 are already about to start New York City’s mandated sex ed curriculum. If we used the existing published numbers, the drop in teen pregnancy is not 27 percent, as reported by the Daily News, but 25 percent. Moreover, even achieving that with the existing numbers will require a greater than 10 percent drop between 2009 and 2010, from 81.1 to 72.6, the 2010 number reported by the Daily News. Again, we await the numbers.
The more painfully obvious problem with the narrative that the Plan B program is working is the fact that the program’s vast expansion as reported by the Post didn’t begin until the 2009-2010 school year. While it is unclear to what extent the program existed before then, it has clearly ramped up in the last three years. Yet we have no teen pregnancy data for 2011 or 2012 on which to base the Gothamist’s claim that the program is working. A one-year overlap between yet-to-be-released data and a program about which we know very little is hardly sufficient grounds for such a conclusion. One thing the Gothamist would have learned in a course on statistics for journalists is that correlation does not equal causation. Here we barely have any correlation.
Finally, as emergency contraception advocate James Trussell has made clear, out of the 15 peer-reviewed articles published which attempted to show that emergency contraception distribution programs were effective at reducing teen pregnancy, 14 found no effect at all. At least one found an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, against which emergency contraception provides no protection. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise in New York City, where teens, especially girls, ages 15-19 have the highest rates of several sexually transmitted diseases in the city. Still, correlation does not equal causation.
Parents have every right to be concerned about an unproven program that dispenses pharmaceuticals to thousands of New York City children without their parent’s knowledge or consent. If the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have real data showing the effectiveness of the program, they should release it. Since the Department of Education told members of the NYC Parents’ Choice Coalition that they were making no effort to track the effectiveness of the program, I doubt they do have it. I suppose they wanted to leave the statistical heavy lifting to the journalists. Parents, we should not be deterred.
Greg Pfundstein is president of the Chiaroscuro Foundation.