Study Challenges Abstinence

Teen pregnancy rates have been dropping in the United States since the early 1990s, because the teens who do have sex are having safer sex, according to a new study.

Improved contraception is more responsible for the drop in teen pregnancies than abstinence, according to a new study published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

"The current emphasis of U.S. domestic and global policies, which stress abstinence-only sex education to the exclusion of accurate information on contraception, is misguided," warns the report.

The study may change the financial future and the direction of teen health programs. Researchers from Columbia University used data from a national study to look at contraceptive use, sexual behaviors, and pregnancy rates of more than 2000 women aged 15-19.

Between 1995 and 2002, overall pregnancy risk dropped 38 percent, as more teens used contraceptives like condoms or birth control pills, and used them correctly. Researchers calculated that 86 percent of the drop in teen pregnancy was due to better contraceptive use. Abstinence from sex was responsible for 14 percent of the decline.

When the researchers looked more closely at the data, they found that in younger teens -- those ages 15-17 years old -- 77 percent of the drop in pregnancy rates was due to improved contraceptive use and 23 percent due to abstinence. Better contraception use was responsible for 100 percent of the pregnancy rate decline among 18-19 year olds, according to the study.

Researchers suggest the data they found have a similar pattern to other developed countries where "increased availability and increased use of modern contraceptives have been primarily responsible for declines in teenage pregnancy rates," wrote study author Dr. John Santelli of the Guttmacher Institute in New York City and his colleagues. Moreover, the authors suggest increases in the use of multiple forms of contraception may "suggest an increased motivation to avoid pregnancy and [sexually transmitted infections]."

Currently, the U.S. government only supports abstinence-only education for teens. The Department of Health and Human Services' $50 million Abstinence Education Program recommends that teens ages 12-29 be exposed to programs that "support decisions to delay sexual activity until marriage," according to the program guidlines.

But in a recent survey of nearly 1,110 U.S. adults, 82 percent supported programs that discuss abstinence as well as other methods for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Half of those surveyed were in outright opposition to abstinence-only education.

And this study suggests that education programs may need to focus more on contraception and sexuality since the drop in teen pregnancy is due to more teens using birth control and not more teens not having sex.

"Programs encouraging abstinence and urging better use of contraception are compatible goals," said Dr. Jonathan Klein, Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence and professor at the University of Rochester in New York.

"Evidence shows that sexuality education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity, and programs that emphasize abstinence as the safest and best approach, while also teaching about contraceptives for sexually active youth, do not decrease contraceptive use," Klein said.

"In contrast, emerging evidence on abstinence-only programs consistently fails to show successful impact on youth."

Study authors say, that although promoting abstinence is a "worthwhile goal," the data from the study shows that it contributes little to preventing pregnancy. Our goal as a nation, according to their report, should be to work towards more comprehensive sex education rather than the abstinence-only education we provide now.

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