By Mike Lillis
Although national teen-pregnancy rates are on the decline, the disparities between states are often dramatic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Wednesday.
Some women's health advocates say the discrepancies are indication that comprehensive sex-education programs are producing results for states that offer them, while states emphasizing abstinence-only programs aren't faring as well.
Whatever the reason, the regional disparities are stark. In Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, for instance, 2008 birth rates were less than 25 per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19, CDC found. In the same year, Arkansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas all had rates topping 60 per 1,000 teens.
Mississippi had the country's highest rate (65.7), CDC says, while New Hampshire had the lowest (19.8).
Leslie Kantor, national education director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the report "makes it crystal clear that the teen birthrate is lower in states that provide students with comprehensive, evidence-based sex education."
"The report demonstrates that the surest way to reduce teenage pregnancy is to provide young people with comprehensive, medically accurate sex education, and doing so is especially urgent for African-Americans and Latino teens, who are getting pregnant more frequently than other young people," Kantor said in a statement.
A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute, a women's reproductive health group, bolsters those claims. All five states with the highest teen birth rates have adopted policies requiring that abstinence be stressed when taught as part of sex education, HIV education or both, the group found. Only one of the five states (New Mexico) mandates that sex education be a part of students' curriculum.
Of the four states with the lowest teen birth rates, none requires that abstinence be stressed to students, according to Guttmacher.
The issue is also one of public health. Children born to teenagers are at higher risk of being born prematurely, having low birth weight and dying during infancy, CDC notes.
Last month, the Obama administration announced $155 million in grants for non-profits, local school districts, universities and other groups sponsoring sex-ed programs "that have been shown to be effective through rigorous research."
"Teen pregnancy is a serious national problem, and we need to use the best science of what works to address it," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at the time.
Kantor says the focus on evidence-based reproductive health education marks "a radical change from the Bush administration, which favored and funded abstinence-only sex education."
The new focus, she said, "represents a true turning point in the history of sex education in the United States."