The reigning orthodoxy among public health officials is that the more government spends on sex education the fewer teen pregnancies there will be. Now, however, British researchers have found empirical evidence that appears to demonstrate the exact opposite.
In findings published in the Journal of Health Economics, Nottingham University Business School Professor David Paton and Liam Wright, a research assistant at the University of Sheffield, found budget cuts to sex education classes may have contributed to lower rates of teenage pregnancy in England.
Paton’s study compared changes in the rate of teen pregnancy with the change in the annual funding of teenage pregnancy services for 149 English local authorities between 2008 and 2014.
To their surprise, the researchers found that after sex education budgets were slashed, teen pregnancy rates fell by 42.6 percent.
“There are arguments to suggest that the impact [of budget cutbacks] on teenage pregnancy may be not as bad as feared,” conclude Wright and Patom in the study.
For teens under 18 years of age, the conception rate in Britain declined by nearly 50 percent between 2007 and 2015. While the United States compiles data on the number of births, the United Kingdom counts conceptions, including those which end in abortion. They do not factor in conceptions that end in miscarriages.
Like their U.S. cohorts, British sex education advocates attributed the decline to increased government investment through the 1999 Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, which boosted funding to initiatives that expanded access to birth control and sex education courses.
“If the programs which were cut had been successful in delaying sex, this would likely have fed through to pregnancy rates. So our findings suggest that they were not doing so and, by implication, that cutting some of these programs led to a reduction in teen sexual activity,” Paton tells Fox News.
Paton makes clear their research does not argue that budget cuts reduce teen pregnancies. The key lesson for policymakers, he says, is that it would be more productive to focus on the underlying causes (poverty and levels of education) of teen pregnancy, rather than on sex-prevention programs and providing minors access to birth control.
The publication of Paton’s study comes at a time when the debate over U.S. funding for prevention programs is heating up after the Trump administration released its budget, which eliminates the Teenage Pregnancy Prevention program. That program received $101 million from the government in the 12 months ending Sept. 30.
According to its budget justification, the Department of Health and Human Services argues that the teenage pregnancy rate “has declined significantly over recent years, but it does not appear this program has been a major driver in that reduction.”
Paton’s findings have garnered little media attention while a study co-authored by Dr. Julie DeCesare of the University of Florida's OB-GYN residency program has been widely seized upon by proponents of more government funding for sex education.
The researchers analyzed county-by-county teen birth rate data and found “clusters” of cities that saw a slower rate of decline in teen pregnancies.
Three of the top 10 teen birth rate clusters were in Texas, which commentators attributed to a lack of access to sex education and birth control.
The researchers found that after sex education budgets were slashed, teen pregnancy rates fell by 42.6 percent.
However, DeCesare said her study simply identified the areas where the clusters were present and did not – as many journalists reported -- identify a cause for the higher-than-expected birth rates. She tells Fox News the findings should prompt a discussion in the communities about how best to reduce teen births.
Paton says his study is a reminder that well-intended programs can have opposite effects and reflects results from earlier studies.
In a 2013 study, Paton and his colleague Sourafel Girma examined the impact of parental consent requirements on pregnancy rates in Texas. After the state passed a mandate in 2003 requiring parental consent for state-funded birth control for minors, many predicted it would lead to an increase in teen pregnancies. Instead, they found there was a decrease in attendance at family planning clinics but no increase in underage pregnancies.
Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, agrees multiple factors have contributed to the historic decline in teenage births in the U.S., but argues comprehensive sex education should continue to receive federal support.
“I think it is reasonable to conclude that [sex education and access to birth control] has had a positive effect and if those investments stopped, it is reasonable to assume that it might have a negative effect,” says Albert.
In the United States, the teen birthrate peaked in 1991, but saw a significant decline in the subsequent years.
“My feeling is why mess with success?” he adds.