Although teen pregnancy rates have been declining considerably since 1991, they are still substantially higher in the U.S. compared to other western industrialized nations. Is there an association between the type of sexual health education and pregnancy rates?
Much of the “abstinence vs. sex education” debate centers around which one should be taught in public schools. Some argue that sex education sends a mixed message to students and ultimately promotes sexual activity. Abstinence, on the other hand, advocates for delaying sexual activity until marriage. Does data support one side of the debate over the other?
Based on our research, states that primarily emphasize abstinence in their sex education courses have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Data suggests that abstinence-only education is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy, and the states that do not include sex education at all in their school curriculums end up with not only the most teenage pregnancies but also higher STD infection rates.
Examining states’ teen pregnancy rates alongside sex ed laws
A closer look at STD rates by state alongside STD education laws
How can we improve?
Fair use statement
This map paints a worrisome picture for the South. In 2020, the #1 state with the highest rate of teen pregnancies was Mississippi, with a rate of 27.9 births per 1,000 teenagers aged 15-19 years. Following just behind is Arkansas, coming in at a rate of 27.8 births per 1,000 teens.
In Mississippi, although schools are required to teach sex education, this state has no standard regarding medically accurate sex education instruction. However, their curriculums are instructed to stress abstinence through “abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus” instruction.
Overall, although evaluations of some sex education and teen pregnancy prevention programs have yielded mixed findings, they did result in more positive outcomes for basic understandings of reproductive and sexual health. This general knowledge alone can provide substantial assistance and STD/STI protection for curious teenagers experimenting with sexual activities.
According to data from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), the top 15 states with the highest rate of teen pregnancies all teach and emphasize abstinence. Out of those states, seven don’t require sex education at all. Additionally, 12 out of the top 15 states with the highest rate of teen pregnancies are located in the southern part of the U.S.
What is going on in the South?
Since 2015, the same 10 states have been in the top 10 for the highest rate of teen pregnancy, and all are in the South except for one: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Interestingly enough, of the 10 states with the most cases of STDs among the 15-24 age group, five of them also rank among the top 10 states with the highest rate of teen pregnancy.
How an emphasis on abstinence affects teen pregnancy rates
It has been statistically shown that states that do not emphasize abstinence have a lower average rate of teen pregnancy compared to states that do emphasize abstinence. Additionally, among the states that do not emphasize abstinence, the average rate of teen pregnancy is only 12.8 per 1,000 females aged 15-19, which is much lower than in states that do emphasize abstinence (16.6).
Why does the emphasis on abstinence education correlate with higher rates of teen pregnancy? Based on findings from the National Library of Medicine, teaching an abstinence-only approach in schools is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually contribute to the high teen pregnancy rates in the U.S., likely due to the lack of education on what sex is, how pregnancy occurs, and what you can do to keep yourself and your partner safe.
Among the top 10 states with the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, only four mandate STD education: Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, and Missouri. When looking at states with and without general sex ed requirements, the states that do require some level of sex education show lower average rates of STD cases among those ages 15-24. States that provide some sort of sex education average 2,937 cases within the state, while those without sex education average 3,277 cases.
In fact, roughly 50% of all new STDs reported each year are among young people ages 15-24, a sign that young people need to better understand the facts about STDs in order to decrease their spread throughout the United States.
According to the CDC, school health curriculums are strongly urged to implement more STD and teen pregnancy prevention programs. Not only can these help young students adopt lifelong attitudes and behaviors that support their health and well-being, but these programs may also reduce their risk for HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and other STDs.
Medical health professionals also propose the integration of comprehensive sex and STD education into biology curriculums in both middle and high school science classes in order to address risk-aversion behaviors regarding sex.
All of the data found in this report – including case statistics for teen pregnancy, STD (chlamydia, gonorrhea, etc.), sex education laws, and abstinence teachings – are from authoritative organizations and government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). We collected and gathered this data to find out which states implement sex education, STD education, and/or abstinence into their school curriculum.
Innerbody Research is committed to providing objective, science-based suggestions and research to help our readers make more informed decisions regarding health and wellness. Our goal in creating STD-related studies is to raise awareness for STD prevention. We hope to reach as many people as possible by making this information widely available. As such, please feel free to share our content for educational, editorial, or discussion purposes. We only ask that you link back to this page and credit the author as Innerbody.com.