Last week, the CDC announced that teen pregnancy rates are the lowest … ever. At least for the seven decades they have been measuring. The fall has erased the surge we had in the late 80’s/early 90’s and the rates are now lower than any time since the 40’s. The rate of teen abortion is way down as well.
The CDC attributes this to increased use of contraception. This, of course, has provoked the usual outcry from the usual quarters, who are insisting that the real cause of the drop is abstinence education, which somehow propagated backward in time to 1991, when the teen pregnancy rate hit its recent peak. It has also apparently propagated to states that do not have abstinence-only education and have the lowest teen pregnancy rates.
Of course, it’s garbage. Teens who get comprehensive sex education — meaning they are taught about abstinence and birth control — are far more likely to delay sex as well as far more likely to use contraception. The reason, I think, is that when you know that safe sex entails adult actions like buying condoms or pills, it becomes intimidating. It becomes a real complicated thing, not some mysterious fantasy. It’s much easier to have sex when you think Jesus is going to protect you than when you know you yourself have to drag you yourself’s own ass down the to drug store and you yourself have to buy condoms from a smirking clerk.
As I noted before, however, these stubborn facts are unlikely to change the Culture Conservatives’ minds. To them, the important thing is that we tell teens not to have sex; that we wave the moral flag that any pre-martial sex is unacceptable even if said waving means more horny ignorant teens getting knocked up or infected. The principle is what matters, not the result. I see no reason, however, why this moral view should triumph over a clear public health need.
I think it’s likely some other factors are contributing as well. The decline in pregnancy rates has corresponded with the rise in porn, sexting and other online sexual trends. Feminists, having utterly failed to show that porn leads to sexual violence, have recently argued that porn is destroying sexual intimacy. I wonder if they are grazing a truth: if online porn makes it easier or someone to get his jollies risk-free (modulo parents who can read a browser history) until he is mature enough for the real thing.
I also wonder if the last two decades of tightening abortion restrictions have contributed. Parental notification laws and other changes have made abortion a hassle, if nothing else. It is a primary principle of economics that incentives matter. If it’s harder to get an abortion, people are less likely to engage in behavior that may lead to one.
But these are likely minor factors. The big change, according to most research, is that teens are delaying sex and are more likely to use birth control when they do get busy. Both of these are good things and both have been going on for twenty years now. Abstinence-only education is the only thing that’s not helping. Whatever else we’re doing, it’s working.