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Teen pregnancy rate study oversimplified, experts say

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A report by the Guttmacher Institute pointing to a one-year increase in the teenage pregnancy rate in America represents an agenda to discredit programs that promote sexual abstinence among adolescents, several observers have said.

The report, released Jan. 26, said that for the first time in more than a decade, the nation’s teen pregnancy rate rose 3 percent in 2006, reflecting increases in teen birth and abortion rates of 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

“It coincides with an increase in rigid abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which received major funding boosts under the Bush administration,” said Heather Boonstra, a public policy associate with Guttmacher.

As media outlets across the country blared out the startling news, what they did not report is that the Guttmacher Institute was founded by Alan Guttmacher, a former president of Planned Parenthood and a leader in the pro-choice movement.

“Should we expect the Guttmacher Institute, the research arm for Planned Parenthood, to support abstinence messages?” Richard Ross, cofounder of the True Love Waits abstinence movement, told Baptist Press.

“Here is a similar question: Should we expect General Motors to work hard convincing the public to abandon cars for mass transit? Abstinent teenagers don’t get pregnant and thus they don’t contribute millions of dollars to the abortion industry. If you want to understand new directions in Washington related to abstinence, follow the money,” Ross said.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, wrote a blog post for National Review Online noting the dash to blame the statistics on abstinence education.

“This is a bit hypocritical. In the decade after the federal government began its meager funding of abstinence education, teen pregnancy fell steadily,” Rector wrote. “Safe-sex experts never linked that decline to abstinence education. But when the news went bad, they swiftly identified abstinence programs as the culprit.”

Rector said the claim that teen pregnancy rose in 2006 depends on the use of the term “teen.”

“For most people, ‘teen pregnancy’ implies pregnancy among high-schoolers, girls under age 18. According to Guttmacher’s own data, the pregnancy rate for 15- to 17-year-old girls barely changed, and the rate for girls 14 and under (the group most affected by abstinence programs) actually dropped,” Rector wrote.

“By contrast, the pregnancy and birth rates for young adult women aged 18 and 19 rose sharply. The rise in pregnancies and births in this age range is part of a much larger story: the collapse of marriage and explosive growth of out-of-wedlock births in lower income communities.”

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, noted that the Guttmacher Institute didn’t stop at reporting the statistics; it offered a specific reason for the increase.

“This simplistic charge demonstrates a tragic disregard of the many factors that contribute to the increase in teen pregnancy and birth rates,” Huber said. “It is truly unfortunate that special interest groups are more concerned in using this pressing issue to advance their own anti-abstinence agenda rather than to devote their energies to finding real solutions. Unfortunately, the message of abstinence has been belittled, censored and mocked as unrealistic by groups disingenuously using research to misconstrue reality.”

Huber said contraceptive sex education received more than four times the funding of abstinence education even during the Bush administration. Guttmacher attributed 100 percent of the blame to the approach that received only 25 percent of the money, she said.

“Research unmistakably indicates that delaying sexual initiation rates and reducing the total number of lifetime partners is more valuable in protecting the sexual health of young people than simply passing out condoms,” Huber said.

Guttmacher reported that about 7 percent of teenage girls got pregnant in 2006, a rate of 71.5 pregnancies per 1,000 teens. That’s up slightly from 69.5 percent in 2005 but down significantly from 1990 when 12 percent of teenage girls got pregnant.

Jimmy Hester, cofounder of True Love Waits, told Baptist Press he disagrees with Guttmacher’s claim that the significant drop in teen pregnancy rates in the 1990s was “overwhelmingly the result of more and better use of contraceptives among sexually active teens.”

“The emergence of the sexual abstinence movement was the main difference in what happened in the early ’90s that reversed the trends in teen pregnancy and sexual behavior, not better acceptance and use of contraception,” Hester said.

In the early ’90s, when LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention launched True Love Waits, teen pregnancy rates had increased steadily for 20 years.

“At the time, information about contraception and safe sex practices was all our teens had heard for some time. That’s what triggered the development of True Love Waits. Parents and teenagers told us they did not have a way to express their beliefs about sexual abstinence until marriage in a society that only lifted up safe sex messages,” Hester said.

“We heard teenagers say that they didn’t realize sexual abstinence was an option. They were conditioned by societal information to believe that premarital sex was not only expected but inevitable. So we launched True Love Waits, and other organizations emerged that resulted in the sexual abstinence movement gaining momentum and support,” Hester said.

“A large number of students accepted the option of remaining sexually abstinent until marriage, expressed those beliefs and influenced other teenagers who were making decisions about their sexual behavior.”

Ross said the drop in rates does not prove True Love Waits made the difference, but the movement’s impact is worth considering. He also noted in the January issue of Christianity Today that the flurry of media activity claiming abstinence programs don’t work lumps together all teenagers who have ever made a pledge related to abstinence, including many who made pledges after “weak, brief and entirely secular programs in schools and community organizations.”

True Love Waits is set apart, Ross said, because those who keep the promise to remain sexually abstinent until marriage “have moved beyond moralistic therapeutic deism” to an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, keeping the pledge by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“But after years of strong support for purity campaigns, some churches and some youth leaders have moved on to other things. I am not at all surprised that teen pregnancy rates now are creeping up again,” said Ross, a professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Hester said the recent efforts to eliminate federal funding of abstinence education programs should be met with a response by churches.

“Since one segment of the abstinence movement is struggling with funding to carry the message to students, church leaders, parents and leaders in student organizations provide the best means of keeping the message before today’s students,” Hester said.

“This is especially true for student pastors and volunteer leaders in the church who can provide opportunities to educate students on the biblical truths of keeping sex within the marriage relationship, offering times to make a commitment to sexual abstinence until marriage, and supporting students in those commitments.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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