A study which revealed that cutting money for sex education in schools actually reduced teen pregnancy has been met with questions, criticism and celebration, depending on the audience. As Live Action News reported in June, a UK study, published in the Journal of Health Economics, examined the effects of the nation’s financial cuts to sex education programs. The study analyzed data from 149 different UK municipalities from 2009 to 2014. The results showed that when sex education funding was slashed, so were pregnancy rates–a whopping 42.6 percent. But correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, so many wondered if it was accurate to conclude cutting sex education could actually reduce teen pregnancy rates.
The research certainly has stunning findings. The public has been led to believe that providing sex education programs, as well as contraception, is the best way to reduce unwanted pregnancies, as well as the abortions that often follow. But when these 149 UK regions cut funding for these programs, the results indicated the opposite.
A report in the Catholic Herald notes that the pregnancy rates fell to the lowest levels since 1969:
The findings by two academics have added to a growing body of research which is exposing the failings of decades of sex education policies.
Family planning gurus have argued since the 1970s that teenage pregnancies could be reduced by more sex education in schools along with easier access to contraceptives.
But the authors of the new study have presented evidence to show that such policies were in fact fuelling increasing numbers of teenage girls becoming pregnant.
They have also led to more unwanted pregnancies, which in turn led to more abortions and to more instances of lone teenage parenthood.
Researchers David Paton of the Nottingham University Business School and Liam Wright of the University of Sheffield write in their research:
Despite these warnings, there are arguments to suggest that the impact on teenage pregnancy may not be as bad as feared and, indeed, that spending on projects relating to teenage pregnancy may even be counterproductive. Wiggins et al. (2009) evaluate a comprehensive intervention given to at-risk youths (including SRE [sex and relationships education] and access to family planning services) which is typical of measures recommended by the Teenage Pregnancy Unit. They find significantly higher rates of teenage pregnancy among the intervention group, as well as increases in a number of other adverse outcomes. This adds to a large body of research showing that teenage pregnancy initiatives may have unintended effects on risky sexual behaviour which could counteract or even outweigh positive effects on teenage pregnancy. (Emphasis added)
The researchers add:
As methods of birth control are not fail-safe (particularly so amongst teenagers (Kost et al., 2008), the net impact on pregnancy rates is ambiguous. Put simply, birth control will reduce the risk of pregnancy for sex acts which would have occurred anyway but may increase the risk amongst teenagers who are induced by easier access to birth control either to start having sex or to have sex more frequently.
Just this week, former Planned Parenthood manager Abby Johnson confirmed what the research found across the Atlantic. Johnson offered insight into the reason why cutting sex education and birth control funding might reduce pregnancy rates. She said on Monday’s Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News:
…[T]hey [Planned Parenthood] provide birth-control because, according to their own numbers, 54% of women who have abortions are using birth control at the time that they got pregnant, so they know that that’s just the way to get these young girls… I mean, I’m 37 years old; I couldn’t remember to take a pill at the same time every day, so you know, get these young girls in there, put them on a pill, a method with a high human error rate and eventually they’re going to end up pregnant and that’s another way to sell them an abortion.
Of course, the study has fierce opponents, such as Helen Marshall, chief executive of Brook, an organization focused on sex education, which also provides abortion referrals. Marshall said, “We are extremely concerned by the suggestion that sex and relationships education and provision to sexual-health services encourage risky behaviour. We would argue precisely the opposite.”
Clearly, if these findings indicate a reduction in pregnancy with the cessation of sex education and birth control funding, organizations like Marshall’s would suffer a loss of funding and support.
And the UK study might provide some insight into the United States. As Live Action News reported last October:
The results of a five-year report from the Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Adolescent Health show that a half billion dollars of spending and half a decade of work has failed to produce the effective sex education programs promised. In fact, a closer look at the data from the HHS office shows that in some cases, the federally-funded sex education programs helped contribute to an increase of pregnancy and sexual exploration in teenagers, while other programs didn’t impact behavior changes at all.
The HHS report revealed troubling trends, as Live Action News reported then:
The most disturbing finding from the results of the $4 million that Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest received is the failure of the program to deliver as promised. This grant used the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) “evidence-based intervention.” However, the evaluation of the program revealed, among other things, that “TOP females reported becoming pregnant at a higher rate than females receiving the alternative program.”
The UK study’s authors conclude their research by noting:
[I]n contrast to predictions by politicians and organisations working in the field, local areas which imposed bigger cuts to projects aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy have, on average, experienced faster decreases in teenage pregnancy rates…. That said, the results here are consistent with previous work suggesting that changes to service access can induce behaviour change amongst at least some teens. To the extent that more difficult access to contraception caused a reduction in sexual risk taking, this may have alleviated any adverse effects of spending cuts.
The authors caution against making widespread conclusions in some situations. For example, they note, cutting contraception access to teens already engaged in a sexual relationship is not going to help reduce pregnancy rates in the short term as much as it will teens who are not sexually active and who may be less inclined to become so in the future if they cannot easily access birth control. However, the data is clear that funding these programs is not making a significant difference, and, in many cases, in the UK and the US, is increasing sexual behavior and pregnancy.
Recently, President Trump recommended defunding a $100-million-per-year federal grant that exists to reduce teen pregnancy because the results released last year showed it is ineffective. The Federalist reported on Trump’s recommendation, noting that the media response was to “flip out”:
“Trump’s hires at HHS were notably hostile to teen pregnancy programs that worked. Now they’ve killed them,” claimed one fact-challenged columnist at the Los Angeles Times. No media outlet mentioned the ineffectiveness of the programs, whether it was NPR, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Politico, Business Insider, The Independent, Forbes, Teen Vogue, or Bustle, even though effectiveness reports are right there on the agency’s web site.
Take this story from Oregon Public Broadcasting. While it adopted the talking points of critics of funding cuts, it didn’t mention that a $4 million grant to Planned Parenthood of the Northwest resulted in youth who were just as likely as other youth to report having sex without birth control. And teen girls in the program actually reported higher rates of pregnancy than girls in a control group. Stories about teen pregnancy programs in Florida and Georgia completely adopted the talking points of recipients of federal funds and didn’t mention any evidence for or against their effectiveness.
Clearly, there is significant cause for caution in spending millions on programs that don’t do what they promise in reducing teen pregnancies and/or sexual behavior, instead often revealing a marked increase in these areas. While there may be backlash to such cuts, the facts are clear from multiple data sources: There is simply no evidence these programs are doing anything more than arming teenagers with ammunition to justify risky sexual behaviors.