Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Comprehensive sex education programs can lower teen pregnancy, study says

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Story at a glance

  • Researchers at New York University studied teen pregnancy rates over a 20-year period, from 1996 to 2016.
  • Their results found when the federal government funded more comprehensive sex education programs, the teen pregnancy birth rate lowered by 3 percent.
  • In 1991, teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. hit their peak, recording about 61.8 births per 1,000 females.

Sex education has been a longstanding conflicting issue in the U.S., but new research suggests that when the federal government funds more comprehensive sex education, it leads to an overall reduction in teen pregnancies.  

Researchers from New York University (NYU) published a study that spanned a 20-year period, from 1996 to 2016, comparing age-specific teen birth rates for counties around the country that did and did not receive federal funding for sex education. Their results showed that counties that received federal funding for more comprehensive sex education led to a 3 percent reduction in the overall rate of teen births. 

In the 1990s, the federal government strictly funded abstinence-only programs and providers were told to avoid the topic of contraception except to emphasize what their failure rates were. Teen pregnancy rates hit their peak in 1991, recording about 61.8 births per 1,000 females, with about 54 percent of high school students reporting they had ever had sex.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Vital Signs: Teen Pregnancy report for 1991-2009 said that births by teenagers are at a greater risk for low birth weight, preterm birth and even death in infancy. Teen mothers are also less likely to finish high school and their children are more likely to have low achievement, drop out of high school and give birth themselves as teens.  


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In response to the sharp increase in teen pregnancies, in 2010 the federal government began rolling out teen pregnancy programs to expand across the country and provide more comprehensive sex education, through the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) and the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program (TPP).  

The TPP gave money to local public and private entities to, “replicate evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention program models that have been shown to be effective through rigorous evaluation research,” and notably it eliminated any requirement that programs stick to the old abstinence-only mandate from the 1990s.  

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the city of Hartford, Conn., through federal TPP money, created programs that provided information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), while also opening up youth access to reproductive health services. The new initiatives resulted in a 28 percent increase in the number of students who felt comfortable talking to their parents about sex, while Hartford’s teen birth rate fell below the national rate.  

Researchers noted similar changes nationally, studying the timing of TPP and PREP and subsequent birth rates by analyzing birth certificates, which captured a mother’s age and county of residence. They found overall in 55 counties spread across the country that received TPP funding, teen pregnancy rates dropped by 1.5 percent in the first year of funding and then fell again by approximately 7 percent by the fifth year of funding.

On average there was a 3 percent reduction in teen pregnancy during the 20-year period of the study.  

However, researchers flagged that the overall decline in teen births spans over three decades, and there have been other economic and societal factors that could also have contributed to the decline.


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