Teenage Pregnancy and Sex Education

  • Earlier this year, the media buzzed with news of the “mysterious” decline in teen pregnancy rates[1]. While theories about the true cause abounded, sex educators understood that a variety of factors played a role.These ranged from MTV’s teen pregnancy shows to broader implementation of effective comprehensive sex education programs. All of the factors had a few characteristics in common. Specifically they:

    1. Increased awareness of teen pregnancy and its consequences.
    2. Increased awareness about safe(r) sex options.
    3. Encouraged research and conversation about pregnancy, contraception, and sex.


    The impact of comprehensive sex education programs go beyond these broad ones. Such programs increase knowledge about contraception and reduce risky sexual behaviors including early sexual initiation, sex with multiple partners, and increased sexual activity. Other content of comprehensive sex education curricula that likely helped reduce the teen pregnancy rate include:

    • how to use contraception more effectively
    • alternatives to vaginal intercourse (e.g. oral sex) that do not carry a risk of pregnancy[2]
    • involvement of parents and other trusted adults


    By doing all of this, sex education fills an important gap. Research shows that teens not only want more information about using condoms, the different types of contraception, and emergency contraception but also that they need it desperately.[3]

    • 36% of teens say they know “a little” or “nothing” about condoms.[4]
    • Half have not heard of emergency contraception.[5]
    • 36% know “a lot” or “everything” about birth control pills and how to use them. [6]


    The answer to how much of an impact comprehensive sex education has on teen pregnancy rates is a complicated one. However, research is able to tease out a number of important connections.

    • More effective contraceptive use accounts for up to 86% of the reduction.[7]
    • Teens receiving comprehensive sex education are half as likely to get pregnant as those in abstinence-only programs.[8]
    • The most effective programs may reduce risky sexual behaviors by one-third.[9]


    Milwaukee provides a great case study for how sex education can drastically impact teens. An ambitious campaign involving evidence-based curricula helped reduce the city’s teen pregnancy rate by half in just five years.

    For more information on reducing teen pregnancy, check out these articles by Planned Parenthood and the CDC.
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    [1] In the US, the teen pregnancy rate include births, abortions, and miscarriages among teenage girls ages 15 to 19.

    [2] Weiss, D., & Bullough, V. L. (2004). Adolescent American sex. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 16(2/3): 43–53.

    [3] Kaiser Family Foundation. (2003). National survey of adolescents and young adults: Sexual health knowledge, attitudes and experiences. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation. [Online]. http://www.kff.org/youthhivstds/3218-index.cfm.

    [4] Albert, B. (2012). With one voice 2012: America’s adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy. Washingon, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unintended Pregnancy. [Online]. http://thenationalcampaign.org/sites/default/files/resource-primary-download/wov_2012.pdf

    [5] Albert, B. (2012).

    [6] Albert, B. (2012).

    [7] Santelli, J. S., Lindberg, L. D., Finer, L. B., & Singh, S.. (2007). Explaining recent declines in adolescent pregnancy in the United States: The contribution of abstinence and improved contraceptive use. American Journal of Public Health, 97(1): 150 –156.

    [8] Kohler, P. K., Manhart, L. E., & Lafferty, W. E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42(4): 344–351.

    [9] Kirby, D. (2007). Emerging Answers 2007: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. [Online]. http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/EA2007/EA2007_Full.pdf.

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