Teen pregnancy study falls prey to wishful thinking
A study released May 26 on birth and abortion rates for girls aged 15-19 in four countries – Canada, the U.S., England/Wales and Sweden –presents data showing that between 1996-2006 Canada’s teen birth rate went down by 38% (22 births per 1000 girls in 1996 to 13 per 1000 in 2006).
The authors state that “…the decline in the teen pregnancy rate in Canada from 1996-2006 coincided with a small decline in the percentage of youth who were sexually active and indications of a substantial increase in contraceptive use by youth who had or were having sexual intercourse.”
These positive numbers lead the study’s authors to conclude that a “well-developed sexual health education programming that targets contraception and safer sex practices can have a positive effect on adolescent behaviour.”
If Canada’s figures were the only ones under the microscopic, the authors would seem to have a solid case that sex education was the hero in the story. But stats within the declining birth rates and stats from other countries tend to contradict such a facile conclusion.
For example, even though birth rates numerically declined in Canada to 13 per 1000, they declined far more in countries outside the study: Japan 5 per 1000, France 8 per 1000 and Denmark 6 per 1000. What does that tell us? Perhaps another study will answer the question. As well, abortion still accounted for 47% of the decline in Canadian birth rates in 2005. If sex ed were really working, wouldn’t contraception be more widespread and abortion rates in decline?
Sweden, always considered a bellwether in enlightened sexual secularity, had an extremely low birth rate for teens – only 6.0 per 1000 (“Sweden has had a generally stable…teen birth/abortion rate since 2002”), but abortion accounted for a stunning 81% of the low birth rate in 2006, which suggests Swedish girls are using abortion as birth control – and perhaps the same is true in the other countries with extremely low birth rates. If true, that is nothing to celebrate.
England launched a 10-year national Teenage Pregnancy Strategy that sought to halve the teen pregnancy rate by 2010. We must surmise that in such a targeted and heavily resourced program, sex education would be ramped up to the max. Yet the pregnancy rates in the teen category remained stable. Births did indeed go down, but only because abortion rates went up.
The bottom line is that fewer young people are having early sex, slightly more of those who have sex are using contraception, and a critical mass of those who are having sex, in spite of a tsunami of education, prefer not to use contraception, but have no problem with abortion as retroactive contraception.
It seems to me on the evidence that western sex ed programs must be something like dietary information programs to combat obesity that present a list of healthy foods on one side of a blackboard, and a list of practices like anorexia and bulimia on the other side, making no moral distinction between them.
I don’t think the absolute decline in sexual experimentation has anything at all to do with sex education in the schools, but with shifting cultural mores. When I went to school in the antediluvian period before sex education, we learned enough biology to know how one got pregnant. The social stigma of unmarried pregnancy was horrific, and sufficient unto the day for promoting abstinence or extreme discretion with the contraceptive options available, even if difficult to come by. Teenage pregnancy was extremely rare by comparison with today’s figures. Cultural attitudes are by far the most important factor in encouraging responsible sexual behaviours in teenagers.
The Dionysian attitudes of the Baby Boomers in their first wild burst of transgression fever in the 1960s have given way to more conservative values in their somewhat disapproving children, who are the parents of the teens under review here. They are producing children with a greater sense of responsibility, so perhaps they are the ones who should be congratulated for the absolute decline in teen sex, and not the sex education specialists.
The study raises more questions than it answers. For example, the combined teen birth/abortion rate in Canada is 28.6 per 1000: five eastern provinces’ rates fall below that figure, while five western and northern provinces (plus Quebec, with the lowest decline of 10% as against the 38% all-Canada rate) show higher rates. Clearly, regional and ethno-cultural factors are at work in the figures; they are alluded to but left unassessed.
So the rather simplistic conclusion that sex education in the schools should take credit for the good news – decline in the teen pregnancy and birth rate – while being spared criticism for the bad news – undiminished to soaring abortion rates – would seem to be more a case of wish fulfilment on the part of the authors than a reasonable interpretation to draw from the evidence.