Clear, Consistent Messages Help Deter Teen Pregnancy, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — June 06, 2001 3 min read
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After years of elusive answers to the problem of teenage pregnancy, a leading group involved in the issue has released a new and more optimistic report that outlines several effective and varied tactics in deterring adolescent sex and pregnancy.

For More Information

Read an executive summary of the report, “Emerging Answers.” (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) Full copies of the report are available for $15 from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy or by calling (202) 478-8500.

The review of existing research, conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, identifies eight programs that the report says have delivered strong results.

Douglas Kirby, who performed the review for the Washington-based campaign, said his look at other studies was encouraging, especially in the wake of a report he wrote in 1997, “No Easy Answers.” That report found little documented success among programs to prevent teenage pregnancy.

“We now have not one, but multiple ways of reducing teen pregnancy,” Mr. Kirby said in an interview just after the new report, “Emerging Answers,” was released last week. “We have strong evidence of multiple programs that do work, and we now know what those are. That gives communities a number of options.”

Mr. Kirby is a senior research scientist at ETR Associates in Scotts Valley, Calif., a nonprofit training and research group that developed and markets two of the five programs for sex and HIV education cited in the report as being successful. He also serves on the board of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a 5-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit group financed largely by private donations.

Clear Messages

The review found that some sex and HIV education programs that include discussion of contraceptives can delay the onset of sexual activity by teenagers and reduce its frequency. It indicates that those programs do not, as some critics have contended, increase sexual activity.

One of the key qualities that make sex education programs effective, the report concludes, is the delivery and reinforcement of a clear and consistent message about abstaining from sex or using contraception. It is also important that such programs last more than a few hours, address the social pressures that influence teenage sexual behavior, and provide basic, accurate information about the risks of sexual activity, the report says.

No conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs, according to the review. Such instruction has become increasingly popular since the 1996 welfare-reform law has made more than $80 million in state and federal aid available annually for such programs.

But Mr. Kirby said that there has been too little solid research done on abstinence-only programs to gauge their effectiveness. One report earlier this year, for instance, found that 16- and 17-year-olds who had made “virginity pledges” tended to delay sexual activity longer than those who hadn’t, but that the pledges had made no difference for 18-year-olds.

Bridget Maher, a policy analyst with the Washington-based Family Research Council, which advocates abstinence-only approaches, offered a different perspective on the sex education research.

“We know that teaching kids to be sexually abstinent until marriage is the only sure way that they won’t become pregnant,” she said.

The national campaign’s report says that programs can be effective in preventing pregnancy and delaying teenage sexual activity even if they do not focus on sex. The review found, for instance, that girls who had participated in service-learning programs were less likely to become pregnant.

The report singles out for particular praise a long-term, comprehensive program created by Michael Carrera of the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. That project offers sex education to teenagers, but also includes tutoring and homework help, aid with college applications, sports and art activities, job assistance, and comprehensive health care.

An examination of the results from 12 sites that use the program showed that female participants reduced their pregnancy rates by half and delayed engaging in sex during the three years they were in the program. It did not, however, affect the behavior of its male participants.

The study comes at time when teenage pregnancy rates have been declining for a decade. But it notes that more than four in 10 teenage girls still get pregnant before they turn 20, resulting in 900,000 such pregnancies a year.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as Clear, Consistent Messages Help Deter Teen Pregnancy, Study Finds


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