Teen Contraception Programs Don't Work, Study Finds

Teen contraception programs are counterproductive. A new study shows that cutting them actually reduces pregnancies and abortions among teens.

Michael J. New is a Visiting Associate Professor at Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, Florida.
Michael J. New is a Visiting Associate Professor at Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, Florida.

The pro-life movement receives a significant amount of criticism from pundits and commentators for not being more supportive of contraception and sex-education programs. Most pro-lifers respond by saying that any gains in contraception use will likely be offset by increases in sexual activity. This will actually result in both more unintended pregnancies and more abortions. A strong body of empirical evidence bolsters these arguments.

For instance, last week the Journal of Health Economics published a study by British academics David Paton and Liam Wright. It found that recent budget cuts in Great Britain's sex-education program were correlated with statistically significant reductions in both the teen-pregnancy rate and the teen abortion rate.

Some background is important. During the 1990s, teen-pregnancy rates in Great Britain were double those of most Western European countries. As a result, in 1999 the British government launched its Teenage Pregnancy Strategy program to promote both sex education and birth control. Some £300 million ($454 million) was spent on this initiative. However, Britain's teen-pregnancy rate and teen abortion rate remained relatively constant between 1999 and 2008.

During this time, local governments were required to use Teen Pregnancy Strategy grants to fund sex-education and contraception programs. However, during the 2008 economic downturn, this requirement was removed — and then these grants were ended altogether during the 2010–2011 fiscal year.

Afterward, public-health projects were funded through a general grant from the central government. Spending on teen-pregnancy programs fell sharply, and teens' pregnancy and abortion rates each fell by over 40 percent between 2008 and 2014. More importantly, these policy changes gave local governments considerably more freedom about how much money to spend on sex-education and contraception programs.

Because of the economic slowdown, most localities decided to enact spending reductions, but there was considerable variation regarding the timing and magnitude of these cuts. Paton and Wright nicely use this variation to analyze how spending on contraception and sex-education programs affect pregnancy and abortion rates among teens at the local level.

Their study is methodologically rigorous. The authors analyze teens' abortion and pregnancy rates in 149 localities for every year between 2009 and 2014. They hold constant a range of demographic, economic, and political variables. As an additional control they even run a set of regressions where they compare teen-pregnancy rates with adult pregnancy rates.

The results from a range of regression models are consistent: Large cuts in contraception and sex-education programs were correlated with larger reductions in teens' abortion and pregnancy rates. Furthermore, the correlations were statistically significant.

This study adds to an impressive body of research showing that programs to encourage contraception among teenagers are ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst.

For instance, last year two Notre Dame economists found that 1990s condom-distribution programs in U.S. high schools actually increased the teen fertility rate. A 2011 University of Michigan study found that significant increases in the price of oral contraceptives at campus health centers failed to have a significant impact on unintended-pregnancy rates.

That said, even though this article has interesting findings and appeared in a top academic journal, it has received extremely little mainstream-media coverage. So far, it has received some coverage from the London Times, the UK Daily Mail, and some conservative and Christian outlets here in the United States. Once again, the mainstream media eagerly touts any research that purportedly shows the public-health benefits of contraception programs, while scholarly criticism of such programs is ignored.

Originally posted at National Review.

Michael J. New is a Visiting Associate Professor at Ave Maria University and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New

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