An absence of abstinence

So after a two-year uptick in 2006 and 2007, the teen birth rate fell in 2008. You might recall that when the teen birth rate went up, many mainstream stories attempted to link the increase to abstinence education.

Here, for instance, is the main suggestion in the USA Today article about the 2006 increase :

Guttmacher and others suggest the increase is related to a focus on abstinence-only sex education programs under the Bush administration.

Funding for abstinence doubled from 2000 to 2003, to $120 million. By 2008, funding was at $176 million. Guttmacher is an outspoken opponent of abstinence-only education.

Never mind that it would be incredibly difficult to have a statistically meaningful study on the effects of the innumerable different curricula that run the abstinence or sex-positive spectrum. It’s not like there’s one abstinence program and one birth control program that every school in the country can choose from. The idea that you could control for all these variables to link a nationwide increase to the curriculum that students may or may not have been exposed to is just laughable. No matter if you’re advocating for one type of program or the other. And comprehensive sex education is still much more common than abstinence programs.

Okay, but now we find out that the teen pregnancy rate — when abstinence funding was sky high — decreased, will we see everyone crediting abstinence programs and their increased federal funding?

Here’s USA Today yesterday:

The U.S. teen birth rate dropped 2% after rising in both 2006 and 2007. A decline in teen pregnancies had been a public health success story, but when the rate began to rise, some observers wondered whether teens had grown tired of prevention messages, says [report author Brady] Hamilton’s co-author, Stephanie Ventura.

The Washington Post gave blame of abstinence education top placement when the 2006 and 2007 numbers came out.

This year, the poor economy got top credit for the decrease. Although reporter Rob Stein did get a brief discussion of abstinence education in at the end of the article.

Since we’re on the topic, this CNN story by Elizabeth Landau has been bothering me for a week. It’s about how the new health care legislation includes $250 million in abstinence education. She literally pits “abstinence-only” (a term applied by critics of abstinence education) programs against what she calls “evidence-based sex education.” That’s a great term to use if you’re in the public relations business. If you’re a reporter, you need to drop the euphemisms.

And the last part of the article is devoted to explaining how one recent abstinence program that was shown (with evidence, even!) to be quite effective might not (but also might) be eligible for federal funds. It’s just bizarre. In fact, the whole article, which repeats many of the problems we’ve witnessed with sex education stories over the years, reads more like an op-ed than a news article.

An overall critique of much of the coverage in years past and present is how teen births — which overwhelmingly are seen with adult women aged 18 and 19 — are always presented as a problem. President Barack Obama’s mother was a teenager when she gave birth to him. My grandmother was as well when she gave birth to my father. I happen to think these are good things. I know that some people don’t support teen birth. But reflexively framing the teen birth rate as an automatic problem is a value judgment I wish we’d see less of.

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  • Dave

    reflexively framing the teen birth rate as an automatic problem is a value judgment I wish we’d see less of.

    Agreed (even if you did end the sentence with a preposition ;-) ).

    “Teen birth rate” is a loaded term that brings to mind assumptions that the teen involved is unmarried, poor, contraceptively ignorant or indolent, and a minority — none of which are necessarily true.

  • kattie

    This article confuses the teen BIRTH rate with the teen PREGNANCY rate. They are completely different things. Nearly half of teen pregnancies end in abortion or miscarriage so when the teen BIRTH rate goes down, it could be because of more abortion, not fewer pregnancies. That data hasn’t come out yet from the CDC.

  • Jerry

    reflexively framing

    I’d like to see less reflexive framing in general. Unfortunately it’s human nature even (or perhaps especially) with the media to focus on what supports one’s preconceptions and reject stuff that contradicts them.

  • Kevin J Jones

    (I think a link to the Landau CNN story wasn’t inserted)

    Another story here: the out-of-wedlock birth rate hit a record high, this report shows.

    “The birth rate for unmarried women declined about 2 percent to 52.0 per 1,000 aged 15-44, the first decline since 2001-02; however, the number and percent of births to unmarried women each increased to historic levels.”

    The number is 40.6%, I think, 28.6% among non-Hispanic Whites, 52.5% among Hispanics and 72.3% among blacks.

    I had some trouble understanding how the unmarried birth rate could go down if the percent and number of unmarried births went up. I believe this can happen if fewer women are marrying and if fewer married women are having children.

    Both religious and secular journalists should ask abstinence-until-marriage advocates what happens to their “end game” when married childbirth is less and less normative.

  • Dave

    I had some trouble understanding how the unmarried birth rate could go down if the percent and number of unmarried births went up.

    Kevin, both the number of unmarried births and the unmarried percent of total births can go up and the rate of such births — that is, the number per 10,000 in the unmarried teen population — can go down.