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Different Programs Do Help Reduce Teen Pregnancy Rates

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WebMD Health News

May 30, 2001 -- Programs designed to address teen sexuality, and several that do not address sex at all, have played a major role in reducing teen pregnancy rates over the past decade, a newly released study suggests. But it is not yet clear whether the abstinence-only programs favored by the Bush administration are effective.

Research from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, or NCPTP, found that sex education programs discussing and/or providing contraception did not hasten the onset of sex, increase the frequency of sex, or increase the number of sexual partners teens had.

"We now know that several different types of programs actually do reduce sexual risk-taking behavior, either by delaying sex or increasing condom and contraceptive use," study author Douglas Kirby, PhD, tells WebMD. "This research shows that a variety of different programs are effective. This is important because it means organizations and communities can pursue different approaches and still have an impact upon teen pregnancies."

Kirby reviewed research on a wide range of programs aimed at children and teens, including school-based sexuality and abstinence programs, those associated with contraceptive and family planning clinics, those focusing on voluntary community service, and those combining education, healthcare, community involvement, and recreation.

As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush repeatedly expressed his support for abstinence-only school-based programs, saying a top administration priority would be to "elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal." In a speech delivered in July 1999, candidate Bush said, "It seems like to me the contraceptive message sends a contradictory message. It tends to undermine the message of abstinence."

According to Kirby, there have not been enough good studies to determine whether abstinence-only education is effective in reducing teen pregnancies. A large, federally funded study addressing the question is now under way, but findings aren't expected for several years.

"We don't know whether abstinence-only programs work. They might or they might not," Kirby says. "But the evidence is overwhelming that talking about condoms and contraception, while emphasizing abstinence, does not increase sexual activity among young people."

Approximately 1 million teenage girls get pregnant in the United States each year, by far the highest rate of teen pregnancies of any industrialized nation, and eight out of 10 are unplanned, according to NCPTP figures. After rising 23% between 1972 and 1990, pregnancies among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 declined 17% between 1990 and 1996. The teen birth rate dropped by 20% between 1991 and 1999, to approximately 50 births per 1,000 young women.

The report, released today, highlighted several types of programs that are effective in delaying the onset of sex among teens, improving contraceptive use, and preventing pregnancy. Several programs focusing on sex and HIV education, with strong condom and contraception components, were found to successfully do all three.

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