Same data, differing interpretations

Abstinence supporters have cited two other studies which support the contention that abstinence was largely responsible for the decline in teenage pregnancy rates.

Mohn1 found that increased abstinence among 15- to 19-year-old teens accounted for at least two-thirds (67%) of the drop in teen pregnancy rates. Increased abstinence also accounted for more than half (51%) of the decline in teen birth rates.

Santelli2 found that 53% of the decline in teen pregnancy rates from 1991 to 2001 could be attributed to decreased sexual experience among teens aged 15 to 17, while only 47% of the decline was attributed to increased use of contraception among teens.

In a subsequent paper which re-analysed the same data, however,3 Santelli came to the conclusion that abstinence was only responsible for a relatively small amount of the decline in teen pregnancy.

Santelli’s re-analysis of the period 1995-2002 found that the proportion of teenage girls aged 15 to 17 who had ever had sex declined by 21.5%, from 38.6% of the total to 30.3%. This was statistically significant. There was no significant decline in girls aged 17 to 19. In terms of ethnicity, there was a significant decline of 28% in the proportion of girls of Hispanic background (aged 15 to 19) who had ever had sex; the smaller declines of 8.7 and 5.8% in white and African-American girls were not significant.

This increase in abstinence or delay in sexual debut only explained a relatively small proportion of the decline in teenage pregnancies: the majority was explained by increased contraceptive use. Overall, 14% of the decline in teenage pregnancies was due to abstinence and 86% in increased contraceptive use. Among 15- to 17-year-olds the proportions were 23 and 77% respectively, and abstinence explained none of the decline in 18- to 19-year-olds: it was all due to increased contraception. Condoms remained the most popular option, with 53% of teenage girls using them compared with 33% using the pill.

To summarise: American teenage girls were, during the late 1990s, using a variety of strategies to control the risk of pregnancy. A slim majority of those who were sexually active (60% of non-Hispanic girls) used condoms, which would also protect them against STIs. Abstinence from sex was maintained by 70% of under-17s, but only 30% of 18- to 19-year-olds.

References

  1. Mohn J et al. An Analysis of the Causes of the Decline in Non-marital Birth and Pregnancy Rates for Teens from 1991 to 1995. Adolescent and Family Health, 3(1):39-47, 2003
  2. Santelli JS et al. Can Changes in Sexual Behaviors Among High School Students Explain the Decline in Teen Pregnancy Rates in the 1990s? Journal of Adolescent Health, 35(2):80-90, 2004
  3. Santelli JS Explaining recent declines in adolescent pregnancy in the United States: the contribution of abstinence and improved contraceptive use. Am J Public Health. 97(1):150-156, 2007
This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.
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This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.

NAM’s information is intended to support, rather than replace, consultation with a healthcare professional. Talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team for advice tailored to your situation.