Why Bush's Abstinence-Only Policies Are (Probably) Not to Blame for the Teen-Pregnancy Increase

The first increase in teen pregnancy in more than a decade has, unsurprisingly, led many to place blame on Bush's heavy funding of abstinence-only education. The Guttmacher Institute report that identified the teen-pregnancy increase suggests that it has to do with "the growth of abstinence-only sex education programs at the expense of comprehensive programs." Katie Couric made a similar link on last night's CBS News, and, over at Feminste, one of the most-read feminist blogs, they're putting it even more bluntly:

With the Bush administration in power, though, Congress directed a whole lot of money towards abstinence-only education—telling kids just to keep it in their pants until marriage (because we all know how well that works as a life-long "don't get pregnant" plan). The result? A four percent rise in teen births, and a one percent rise in abortion.

Abstinence-only education is a polarizing issue, and its critics have an easy bandwagon to jump on. But if we take a step back and look at the relationship between funding for abstinence-only education and the teen-pregnancy rate, it's a difficult conclusion to stand by. A look at the numbers:

Funding for abstinence-only education has steadily increased since 1997, when it was a mere $9 million dollars. The year after, it jumped to $96.5 million, and since then has steadily increased to the tune of about $10 million to $20 million each year. As of 2009, it was at $200 million.

If abstinence-only education is indeed to blame for the new rise in the teen-pregnancy rate, then it would have made sense to see gains much earlier than 2005. Particularly between 1997 and 1998, when the funding of abstinence-only education increased tenfold, there should have been some indication of an uptick. But there wasn't: in that year, the teen-pregnancy rate dropped by about 3 percent, pretty similar to drops in other years. Despite a consistent increase in abstinence-only education funds, we did not start seeing an increase in teen-pregnancy rates (or even a slowdown in the rate at which they were decreasing) until the mid-2000s.

At the state-level, the connection proves tenuous: over at DoubleX (which, like Newsweek, is owned by the Washington Post Company), Jessica Grose points out that the teens in North Dakota are the most likely to use condoms, despite the fact that the state has regularly received abstinence-only funds.

This is not to say that abstinence-only education did not play some role in the new uptick in teen pregnancy. Numerous studies have shown abstinence-only programs to be less effective than comprehensive programs that teach methods of contraceptives in terms of preventing teenagers from having sex or lowering the rates of sexually transmitted diseases. Many of the abstinence-only education grants that the federal government hands out last four or five years, so a grant given in 2003 could just now start to show its impact on the teen-pregnancy rate. But to say abstinence-only education caused the uptick in teen pregnancies is overblown and oversimplified.

So if Bush's policies did not cause the uptick in teen pregnancies, what did? That is the million-dollar question. What we do know is this: despite sex education being a mainstay of public education since the 1960s, no program has proved 100 percent successful, be it abstinence-only or something else. One 2008 review of 48 studies of comprehensive curriculums found just over 60 percent either reduced frequency of sex or number of sexual partners—the number drops even lower if you consider programs that accomplished both. Obama wants to improve these numbers, with a budget that emphasizes proven track records and an interest in experimenting with new ideas. But at the moment we know a whole lot more about what we're doing wrong than what we're doing right.