Don’t Panic About “Teen Pregnancy Prevention” Cuts

There’s about to be another panic in the New York Times and elsewhere about whether we’re giving enough contraception-friendly advice to teens.  But even news stories covering this development are admitting that the programs aren’t wildly effective. Please use the below material and arguments whenever this topic arises, ok?!

Several outlets, the Times included, are correctly reporting that the federal government is cutting off funding early for a wide swath of Teen Pregnancy Prevention programs. The new Department of Health and Human Services is indeed ending contracts with a variety of providers in June 2018.

In the article, HHS is pointing out that the programs are not very effective. What’s really stunning is that the proponents of continued funding can’t muster a strong disagreement. They are rather saying that:

  • “Most of [the] projects,” the Obama Administration evaluated “were found to be no better than the sex education or behavior health programs already in place in the schools or communities where the projects were.”
  • “Only 12 of the 41 were found to have changed sex-related behavior.”
  • “Sometimes, positive effects seen at three or six months evaporated by 12 months. And some projects did not measure pregnancy rates, but “self-reported sexual activity, and it’s not clear if that’s reliable….”And (admitting high rates of failure)….The “success rates of the evaluated projects were similar to those of clinical trials in medicine, so cutting funding for pregnancy prevention is like “cutting medical research because the vast majority of approaches, interventions and treatments that are tried are proven not to work.”

It’s true that abstinence programs have not proved a silver bullet either, but neither have they been treated with the kid gloves (if at first you don’t succeed…try try again!) of the contraceptive programs.

And finally, those panicking over the cuts, and claiming that they are closely related to big declines in teen pregnancy over the last several decades are forgetting one crucial thing. Rates of nonmarital teen pregnancy have actually increased from 14 nonmarital pregnancies per 1000 teens in the 1950s, to 21.5 per 1000 today—a 50% increase.[1].  Teen pregnancy rates overall have declined in large part because teens aren’t getting married any more. (See Eileen Patten and Gretchen Livingston, “Why is the teen birth rate falling?” Pew Research Center: Facttank, April 29, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/29/why-is-the-teen-birth-rate-falling/.)

So tying these soon-to-be-ended programs to declines in teen pregnancy is not a strong argument.

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