Reuters NewMedia - February 10, 2012
Feb 10 (Reuters) - States with more comprehensive sex education
programs had lower teen birth rates, but the effect seemed to be
due more to political, religious and social differences in U.S.
communities than the sex education itself, according to a study.
Whether school sexual education programs should include any
guidance other than abstinence has been for years the topic of
political and cultural debate in many parts of the United States.
"Although the teen birth rates and teen pregnancy rates are
dropping year after year ... we still have disparities between
states, and we have higher teen birth and teen pregnancy rates
when we're compared to other industrialized countries," said
Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, from Washington University in St. Louis,
who worked on the study.
She and her team compared school curricula for 24 states with the
birth rates of girls aged 15 to 17 in those states between 1997
They found wide variation over the study period, from one birth
in every 100 New Hampshire girls each year to three or four
births for every 100 Arkansas girls.
In general, the more school districts in a particular state that
covered how to use a condom, how to prevent HIV and other sex
education topics, the fewer teen births there were, the
researchers reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent
But when they took into account race, poverty and crime levels in
the states, much of the link disappeared, with poorer states that
had more minorities and more crime having less sex education and
more teen births.
When religion and laws on abortion were taken into account, sex
education programs themselves no longer predicted birth rates.
"The effects of sexuality education were constrained by state
characteristics and do not independently explain the considerable
variations in adolescent birthrates found across states," wrote
Cavazos-Rehg and her colleagues.
"Our findings underscore the strong influence of state
characteristics on adolescent birthrates above and beyond
Researchers said there are a number of ways to interpret the
findings, although none of them suggest teens can't learn from
First, conservative and religious states might teach sex ed in a
less effective way than liberal ones, meaning that more teens in
those states end up pregnant.
"There can be enormous variation between what goes on in one
state and what goes on in another state even if they both
indicate that they discuss how to use a condom or pregnancy
prevention," said Amy Bleakley, who studies teen sexual behavior
and reproductive health at the University of Pennsylvania in
Or it could be that teen pregnancy rates are more similar between
states, but in places with liberal abortion laws, more adolescent
girls end their pregnancies early.
Cavazos-Rehg said that abortions may account for some of the
difference in birth rates, but not entirely. Although data on
pregnancy rates are less comprehensive, her research has still
shown much higher teen pregnancy rates in Arkansas and
Mississippi, for example, than in New England.
Experts agreed that sex education programs can be improved --
both by raising standards on what goes into them, and also by
including not only how to use contraception, but the consequences
of being pregnant and having a baby as well.
(Reporting from New York by Genevra Pittman; editing by Elaine Lies and Bob