March 22, 2012
States with more comprehensive sex education curriculums have lower teen birth rates, according to a new study. However, the result appears more closely linked to political, religious, and social variations among the states.
Researchers contend this does not suggest that sex education never helps prevent pregnancy; rather, the feelings of relatives and acquaintances, and access to birth control and family planning programs, could be equally influential.
"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 nations," said study researcher Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, from Washington University in St. Louis.
The researchers evaluated sex education programs and birth rates for girls ages 15-17 from 24 states in 1997-2005. Results varied from one birth per 100 girls annually in New Hampshire to three or four births per 100 girls annually in Arkansas.
More comprehensive sex education generally predicted fewer teen births. But much of the association disappeared when race, poverty, and crime were included: Poorer states with larger minority populations and more crime had less sex education and more teen births. When states' "religiosity" and abortion laws were factored in, sex education programs no longer predicted birth rates.
As to why these disparities exist, researchers said conservative states may teach sex education less effectively than liberal ones; or more girls may be terminating their pregnancies in states with liberal abortion laws.
University of Minnesota Adolescent Health and Medicine Researcher Marla Eisenberg maintains that "school-based sex ed is only one part of a much larger puzzle of influences on adolescent sexual behavior."
Cavazos-Rehg added that sex education could be improved and should not only focus on contraception, but also include the consequences of having a baby.
The study, "Associations Between Sexuality Education in Schools and Adolescent Birthrates," was published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (2012;166(2):134-140).