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Sex Education and Teen Birthrates

How effective is sex education in lowering teen birth rates?

It might seem like an easy question.  After all, if teens learn about sex and contraception in school, wouldn’t it follow that they’d use those lessons to prevent pregnancy?

Not necessarily.

A recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine suggests that there’s much more influencing teen birth rates in the U.S., especially when making state-to-state comparisons.  Political, religious, and social conventions play a role.

Is a state more liberal or conservative?  Do its residents tend to be more religious?  Is sex education mandated?  What kind of sex education do teens receive?  Is abstinence stressed?  What kinds of services are available to teens?

Today we’ll look at some of these issues.

U.S. Birth Rates – A Snapshot

In 2009, the U.S. teen birth rate for girls between 15 and 19 years old was 39.1 per 1,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  This was among the highest in the industrialized world.  In comparison, Canada’s rate was 13 per 1,000.  Japan’s was 5 per 1,000.

Within the U.S., birth rates also vary widely.  CDC data for 2009 show that Mississippi had the highest number of births among females aged 15 to 19 with 64.2 per 1,000.  Florida matched the national average of 39 per 1,000.  New Hampshire had the lowest rate: 16.4 per 1,000.

The Study

Dr. Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg and her colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis wanted to know more about how political and religious factors might affect teen birth rates.  To do this, they looked at sex education curricula for girls aged 15 to 17 years in 24 states between 1997 and 2005.

(Note that this study analyzed a smaller age group than the CDC figures given above.)

The researchers found that comprehensive sex education, which included lessons on contraception, usually led to lower birth rates.  But when they considered political and religious factors and state abortion policies, this tendency decreased.  “States with higher religiosity rankings and greater political conservatism had higher adolescent birthrates,” they wrote.

In an interview with LiveScience, Dr. Cavazos-Rehg discussed differences between states.  Arkansas, a conservative state, had the most teen births in the study:  34.8 per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 17.  In contrast, New Hampshire, a liberal state, had the lowest teen birth rate: 9.7 per 1,000 girls.

Political Factors

According to, 20 states and the District of Columbia mandated sex education as of August 1, 2011.  However, mandated or not, sex education can vary from state to state and from community to community.  Some curricula are more comprehensive than others.  For example, some districts are required to stress abstinence.  Others may not have this requirement but still choose this focus.  Still others may decide to teach their students about abstinence and contraceptive use.  Others may choose not to offer sex education at all.

It’s possible that wiggle room in some curricula may account for the political influence on birth rates.  A conservative instructor may teach about contraception, but give it less emphasis than a liberal instructor might.

Religious and Social Factors

There are other issues at work, however,  For many teens, religion influences their sexual decision-making.  Some may learn about contraception or abortion in school, but choose not to take either route because their religious beliefs prohibit it. 

Such decisions are not always dictated by religion.  For some, the social mores of the community influence girls’ feelings about contraception, terminating a pregnancy, or even carrying a baby to term.  For some, a teen birth may be considered acceptable or even desirable.


It’s important to remember that the Washington University study looked at teen birth rates, not teen pregnancies.  Teens in states with more liberal abortion policies may have chosen to end their pregnancies, which would affect birth rates in those states.

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts on sex education and teen birth rates?  Feel free to leave us a note in the comments.