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Last Updated: Monday, 22 November, 2004, 07:49 GMT
Lessons from US teen pregnancy drop
Michelle Roberts
BBC News health reporter

Image of young couple
The US rates are the lowest in nearly 60 years
The birth rate among US teens aged 10-14 has fallen to the lowest level since 1946, government figures show.

Purists claim it is down to policies promoting abstinence, which have been heavily backed by the Bush government.

But family planning services argue 88% of those who make the pledge break the pledge, so it must be down to condoms and safe sex education.

Given that the number of under-18s who became pregnant in England and Wales rose from 40,966 in 2001 to 41,868 in 2002, what can the UK learn from the US?

By 2010, pregnancy rates in under 18s in England will have to have dropped by 50% under targets set by the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy.

Conception rates in under 16s should also follow a downward trend, the government has said.

How has the US done it?

An analysis by researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute in the US found about a quarter of the decline in teenage pregnancy between 1988 and 1995 was due to more teenagers abstaining from sex.

Image of a marriage
The message of abstinence is universal and has a universal effect on reducing teenage pregnancies.
Matthew Staver from Liberty Counsel

The remaining three-quarters of the drop resulted from a decrease in pregnancy rates among sexually active teenagers.

This decline was caused by more effective contraceptive use.

But Matthew Staver, from the conservative US Christian group Liberty Counsel, believes the more recent decline is down to teenagers waiting until they are married before they have sex.

"I think it's an obvious correlation. I have always been puzzled why people say abstinence education does not work. It obviously works. It's common sense.

"Clearly, youth understand the importance of self respect and prefer that they will be attractive because of who they are and not because of their sexual functions.

"It's a very encouraging and positive trend to see that abstinence education is working.

"The UK can clearly take a message from what is happening in America."

He said people who claim abstinence education does not work were ignore reality because they have another agenda - a sexual revolution agenda.

Safe sex or no sex?

Melissa Dear from the UK Family Planning Association said this was nonsense.

"I can understand that some groups would want to capitalise on this to say abstinence works.

"In the UK, we do not feel that it is a helpful approach.

Image of condoms
The average age of marriage is the late 20s. It's unrealistic to expect people to abstain from sexual activity until then.
Melissa Dear from the UK Family Planning Association

"There is a big difference between abstinence until marriage programmes and programmes that help young people resist peer press to have sex early.

"Abstinence until marriage tells young people that contraception does not work and makes them vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections when they do have sex."

She said the figures could have been a reflection of a high abortion rate and that the US still had a higher teen pregnancy rate than some countries around the world.

The FPA believes young people should be provided with information about sex and contraception to give them the confidence they need to resist peer pressure to have sex before they are ready, but equip them with the skills and knowledge to have sex safely when they decide to do so.

She said abstinence until marriage might suit certain groups, but that it was not a realistic policy for society as a whole.

"In this country, the average age of marriage is the late 20s. It's unrealistic to expect people to abstain from sexual activity until then.

"Abstinence programmes are often part of a faith-based initiative which just does not carry as well in the UK.

"It also excludes vast numbers of young people, including those already having sex, lesbian and gay communities and young people who are not entitled to marry."

Mr Staver from Liberty Counsel disagreed, saying: "We all experience the same temptations and struggles.

"The message of abstinence is universal and has a universal effect on reducing teenage pregnancies."

A study by US researchers at Columbia and Yale universities of data collected from 12,000 teenagers ages 12 to 18 who were questioned again six years later found nearly nine out of 10 who had made an abstinence pledge went back on it.

Belt and braces

A British Medical Association report found six out of 10 UK 16- to 24-year-olds admit to not using condoms, despite repeated government efforts to get the safe-sex message across.

Most young people having sex
1. Greenland
2. England
3. Ukraine
4. Wales
5. Scotland
Rankings based on WHO survey of 162,000 15-year-olds from 35 countries in Europe and North America

A spokesman from the Centers for Disease Control, which compiled the US birth data, said: "There is data showing teens are putting off the hanky-panky and that they are being more careful and using contraceptive when they do have sex.

"But this dates back to the mid 90s and there is not a direct trial.

"There is absolutely no government comparison. We know both are happening - more abstinence and more contraceptive use - so they are working together even if there is not widespread agreement about which is better."


SEE ALSO:
Teen abortion girl pregnant again
17 Nov 04 |  Nottinghamshire
Bush's affair with abstinence
12 Jul 04 |  Americas


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