The first step in reducing teen pregnancy and abortion is to know the facts. Actually, we know what works. Child Trends and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy published their own data and the corroborating findings of a vast body of scientific research which found that the recipe for delaying sexual activity is parental involvement, good friends, strong faith and participation in church activities. The bottom line, they said, is that parents and friends have tremendous influence on their children, regardless of socio-demographic or economic background and characteristics.
Obviously, many of the nation’s adolescents don’t have those positive influences in their lives; researchers from the left and the right acknowledge the problems associated with single parent families, father absence, declining church attendance, and lack of community networks.
Adolescent girls facing those challenges in their personal lives are particularly vulnerable. Only 1.7 percent of teenage males were fathers in 2002; that means the vast majority of fathers of the babies born to teen mothers are age 20 or older. There are far more sexually experienced girls than there are girls who are sexually active — which probably means that the girls’ sexual initiations were not likely precipitated by mutual passion and instead involved drugs and/or alcohol. So, it is not surprising that fully 63 percent of teens regret early sexual activity and wish that they had waited.
But, there is good news. Teen sexual activity is down, teen births are down, and teen abortions are down. Since their peak, early teen birthrates have declined 45 percent, and older teen birthrates have declined 27 percent. The percentage of sexually experienced teenagers among all races has leveled out, and the decline among non-Hispanic Blacks is one-fifth. Along with these positive changes is an accompanying decline in high-risk sexual behaviors.
Experts from the right and the left stand amazed; many thought they would never see positive progress in these hard-to-reverse trends. None of that is good enough, of course. We lead the developed nations in teen pregnancy and the number of abortions is still far too high.
However, these trend reversals indicate that policy counts. For the well-being of the nation’s teens, we must support those policies that work and discontinue those policies that are counterproductive.
Two actions are essential:
Supporting Abstinence Programs — All the documented positive trends coexist with the increased sophistication and more widespread adoption of abstinence education in the public schools and in community programs. Those who critique abstinence programs as too simplistic and unrealistic don’t understand the peer and societal pressures that teenage girls face, nor do they understand the depth and breadth of today’s abstinence training. The integration of character development and goal-setting programs, along with the training in how to say “no” and the building of social networks among teenagers, are essential aspects of the success of abstinence education.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the number of sexually active teens has declined from 54 to 46 percent and that a majority of teens said that abstinence education was an important factor in their decision to abstain from sex. Other extensive studies by the Adolescent and Family Health journal credit abstinence for a 67 percent decline in teen pregnancies. A study by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health reflected a 40 percent lower likelihood of pregnancy for girls taking virginity pledges.
Continuing Welfare Reform — During the era of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) entitlement, teen birth rates went up right along with the various states’ welfare recipiency rate. When Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) replaced AFDC, unwed teen birth rates went down, as did child poverty rates. Sadly, some states are now by-passing the time limits of TANF by moving those recipients who have used up their TANF eligibility from the federally-funded TANF program to state-funded programs — a move that is reinstituting welfare entitlements, damaging the effectiveness of Welfare Reform (and by extension efforts to hold down or reduce teen birthrates) and lessening the incentives that helped reduce the welfare caseload by 60 percent. If this practice continues, we may expect to see a reversal of the downward trend in teen birthrates and a return to the subsidization of out-of-wedlock childbearing that we saw before TANF’s time-limits were imposed.
It is past time for responsible adults in our culture — parents, teachers, community and religious leaders, and pastors — to reach out with the truth to those vulnerable young people who lack parental involvement, faith, and good friends in their everyday lives. “Safe sex” messages mislead these teens; the best choice for all teens is to remain abstinent until marriage and to be faithful in marriage. Those choices lead to the greatest well-being in life. It is unfair that our most vulnerable teens are the ones who are not given the full truth.