And the state with the largest increase in teen pregnancy is …

Surprise! It’s Alaska, home of that stalwart supporter of abstinence only education, Sarah Palin, and her daughter Bristol, a teen who became pregnant outside of marriage. That startling bit of information is was included in CDC statistics that formed the basis for a new review calling attention to a worrisome development. After years of dropping steadily, the teen pregnancy rate has plateaued and begun to rise.

According to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions: National and State Trends and Trends by Race and Ethnicity:

In 2005, the U.S. teenage pregnancy rate reached its lowest point in more than 30 years (69.5), down 41% since its peak in 1990 (116.9). However, in 2006, the rate increased for the first time in more than a decade, rising 3%…

… [F]or the first time since the early 1990s, overall rates of pregnancy and birth—and, to a lesser extent, rates of abortion—among teenagers and young women increased from 2005 to 2006. It is too soon to tell whether this reversal is simply a short-term fluctuation, a more lasting stabilization or the beginning of a longer-term increase. Preliminary data on births for 2007 show a further increase in the birthrate among all women, including teenagers …

Twenty-eight states had statistically significant changes in teen pregnancy rates, 22 states had increases in teen pregnancy rates, while 4 had decreases. Alaska had the largest increase, the teen pregnancy rate rising a startling 19%. It holds the dubious distinction of beating out traditional leader Mississippi, which experienced an increased rate of teen pregnancy of 13%.

Opponents of abstinence only education were quick to suggest that such programs are to blame:

“One of the nation’s shining success stories of the past two decades is in danger of unraveling,” said Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “Clearly, the nation’s collective efforts to convince teens to postpone childbearing must be more creative and more intense, and they must begin today.”

But the increase is hardly an endorsement of values neutral, fact based sex education. Even, Heather Boonstra, Guttmacher’s senior public policy associate, acknowledges that:

… the reasons for the increase are probably complex and multifold. “We’ve been seeing declines in contraceptive use,” she says, probably at least in part because of complacency about the HIV virus that fueled a rise in condom use among teens in the 1990s. She also says teen pregnancy seems to be more acceptable in many American towns and cities as teens flock to blockbuster movies like Juno (which positively portrays a pregnant teen) and see pregnant peers in their classes, something that was rare several decades ago.

The data indicate that both intended and unintended teen pregnancies rose:

The teenage birthrate in 2006 was 41.9 births per 1,000 women. This was 32% lower than the peak rate of 61.8, reached in 1991, but 4% higher than in 2005.

The 2006 teenage abortion rate was 19.3 abortions per 1,000 women. This figure was 56% lower than its peak in 1988, but 1% higher than the 2005 rate.

From 1986 to 2006, the proportion of teenage pregnancies ending in abortion declined almost one-third, from 46% to 32% of pregnancies among 15–19-year-olds.

The data suggest that teen pregnancy is not a matter of sex education, but rather a lifestyle choice. In that sense, it does reflect the abject failure of abstinence only education. Abstinence only education has had no impact on rates of teen sexual activity, and now rates of both unintended and intended teen pregnancy are rising once again.

But fact based sex education does not appear to be the answer, either. Teens are choosing to get pregnant and choosing to carry pregnancies to term, putting in doubt one of the fundamental assumptions of fact based sex education, that teens who know more will take more precautions to avoid pregnancy.

If we intend to decrease the rate of teen pregnancy, the answer will not lie in either type of sex education alone.

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