U.S. states whose residents have more conservative religious beliefs on average tend to have higher rates of teenagers giving birth, a new study suggests.
The relationship could be due to the fact that communities with such religious beliefs (a literal interpretation of the Bible, for instance) may frown upon contraception, researchers say. If that same culture isn't successfully discouraging teen sex, the pregnancy and birth rates rise.
Mississippi topped the list for conservative religious beliefs and teen birth rates, according to the study results, which will be detailed in a forthcoming issue of the journal Reproductive Health. (See the full top 10 below.)
However, the results don't say anything about cause and effect, though study researcher Joseph Strayhorn of Drexel University College of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh offers a speculation of the most probable explanation: "We conjecture that religious communities in the U.S. are more successful in discouraging the use of contraception among their teenagers than they are in discouraging sexual intercourse itself."
The study comes with other significant caveats, too:
The same link might not be found for other types of religious beliefs that are perhaps more liberal, researchers say. And while the study reveals information about states as a whole, it doesn't shed light on whether an individual teen who is more religious will also be more likely to have a child.
"You can't talk about individuals, because you don't know what's producing the [teen birth] rate," said Amy Adamczyk, a sociologist at the City University of New York, who was not involved in the current study. "Are there just a couple of really precocious religious teenagers who are running around and getting pregnant and having all of these babies, but that's not the norm?"
Strayhorn agrees and says the study aimed to look at communities (or states) as a whole.
"It is possible that an anti-contraception attitude could be caused by religious cultures and that could exert its effect mainly on the non-religious individuals in the culture," Strayhorn told LiveScience. But, he added, "We don't know."
Strayhorn compiled data from various data sets. The religiosity information came from a sample of nearly 36,000 participants who were part of the U.S. Religious Landscapes Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted in 2007, while the teen birth and abortion statistics came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For religiosity, the researchers averaged the percentage of respondents who agreed with conservative responses to eight statements, including: ''There is only one way to interpret the teachings of my religion," and ''Scripture should be taken literally, word for word."
They found a strong correlation between statewide conservative religiousness and statewide teen birth rate even when they accounted for income and abortion rates.
For instance, the results showed more abortions among teenagers in the less religious states, which would skew the findings since fewer teens in these states would have births. But even after accounting for the abortions, the study team still found a state's level of religiosity could predict their teen birth rate. The higher the religiosity, the higher was the teen birth rate on average.
John Santelli of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University calls the study "well-done," adding that the results are not surprising.
"The index of religiosity is tapping into more fundamentalist religious belief," Santelli said. "I'm sure there are parts of New England that have very low teen birth rates, which have pretty high religious participation, but they're probably less conservative, less fundamentalist type of congregations."
Other factors that may have been important to consider include ethnic backgrounds of state residents, according to Adamczyk, the City University of New York sociologist.
"We know that African American women on average tend to underreport their abortions, which means they could also underreport the likelihood that they got pregnant," Adamczyk said. "If you're dealing with states with a high number of African American wome, you might run into that problem."
Adamczyk's own, separate research has shown a nearly opposite correlation, at the individual level. "What we find is that more religious women are less likely to engage in riskier sex behaviors, and as a result they are less likely to have a premarital pregnancy," Adamczyk said during a telephone interview. But for those religious teens who do choose to have premarital sex, they might be more likely to ditch their religious views and have an abortion, she has found.
Cause and effect?
Adamczyk says the idea that anti-contraception principles could be behind the link is controversial, as studies on the topic have varied results. "The idea is that in the heat of the moment, a young woman who has said, 'I'm going to be a virgin on my wedding night,' is with her boyfriend and she says 'Let's just do it.' And since they didn't plan it, nobody has a condom. And so it increases their chances of a pregnancy," Adamczyk said.
Earlier marriage among religious individuals could also partly explain the finding.
"In the south, there is a higher rate of marriage of teenagers. And one possible explanation is just that in the southern states, which are also more religious, people just get married earlier and have planned pregnancies and those have perfectly good outcomes," Strayhorn said. He added that he doesn't think the earlier marriage idea explains the religion-birth link.
Top 10 states with highest teen birth rates:
2. New Mexico
Top 10 most conservatively religious states:
3. South Carolina
8. North Carolina