The study analyzed more than 10 years of data from a federally funded sex ed program

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Pro-choice advocates are always fighting for better access to age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education rather than abstinence-only propaganda in part because they claim it reduces unwanted pregnancies. A new study says they’re right.

The latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) includes an article documenting the relationship between comprehensive sex education and teen birth rates, and the results, while predictable, show just how important sex ed can be.

What the study found

After noting that women in the U.S. are “more likely to become mothers as teens than those in other rich countries” and that teen births are usually unintended, the paper’s authors (doctoral candidate Nicholas Mark and professor Lawrence Wu, both in New York University’s Department of Sociology) began to look at how federal funding for comprehensive sex education plays a role in those numbers.

They ultimately found that “federal funding for more comprehensive sex education reduced county-level teen birth rates by more than 3%.”

In other words, comprehensive sex ed works. If someone’s goal is to decrease unwanted pregnancies, giving students accurate information about sex is far more useful than telling them to avoid it at all costs.

How they analyzed the sex education data

The study analyzed data collected over the course of a decade, focusing on classrooms that were part of the federally-funded Teen Pregnancy Prevention program (TPP). An NYU article explains:

Local organizations receiving TPP funding for their programs targeted different groups of at-risk youth. For example, one delivered in San Diego centered on 9th and 10th grade students in schools identified as “teen pregnancy hotspots.” 

By using that particular metric, the researchers could link sex ed to the birth rate a few years down the line, offering a measure of causation rather than simply correlation.

While previous studies have concluded that broadly based sex education programs are beneficial in reducing teen birth rates, many rely on correlational support. The PNAS research, by contrast, examined which counties received TPP funding and subsequent birth rates, which Mark and Wu studied by analyzing birth certificates, thereby capturing the mother’s age and county of residence. Encompassing the timing of program implementation and later birth rates allowed the researchers to conduct a “quasi experiment”—one that could potentially illuminate a cause-and-effect relationship, but without a random sample that is typical of traditional experimental research.

Their research looked at teen birth rates in 55 counties for 13 years before beginning to receive TPP funding and for seven years after. They compared these numbers to those found in 2,800 counties that did not receive similar TPP funding.

Why this matters

At first, birth rates in the 55 counties overall dropped by only 1.5%—still good, but nothing to write home about. By the fifth year of funding, however, it dropped by about 7%. Mark and Wu explain the accelerating decline with the fact that most teens are not necessarily sexually active at the time of their sex ed class. Educating teens about sex before they ever have it—and make unsafe decisions in the process—is the entire point.

As Wu stated, “This work shows that more wide-reaching sex education programs—those not limited to abstinence—are successful in lowering rates of teen births.” There were other factors to consider, including societal and economic ones, that may have contributed to a decline in the teen birth rate over the past few decades, but it’s difficult to pinpoint anything else besides TPP that would’ve led to such a huge drop in these counties.

All of this really boils down to whether we should teach kids about sex, about contraception, about pleasure and consent, etc. or whether we should pretend that it’s something they can simply avoid until their wedding day, at which point they’ll learn to love it. The same people who believe abstinence is a realistic option for everyone are often the same people who oppose abortion. If they genuinely wanted to reduce abortion rates, then preventing people from having unwanted pregnancies would be a win-win for everyone. Yet, in this case, that would involve saying yes to educating kids about the realities of sex. Too many on the anti-abortion side refuse to go along with that.

This study should be yet another nail in the coffin of abstinence-only indoctrination. But that’s only going to happen if the people who promote it would ever put facts over their own religious dogma.

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Rebekah is a curious atheist, lifelong student, and creative introvert. She graduated from the conservative Christian Grove City College with a bachelor's degree in Communication Studies and a desire to...