If you're a teenage girl in the United States, you are now less likely than ever before to get pregnant. Because of that, you're also less likely to drop out of high school due to an unintended pregnancy, and less likely to live in poverty compared to older first-time mothers, which is really encouraging news. But it turns out that the declining national birth rate doesn't tell the entire story, especially in states like Texas. With 34.6 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 in 2015, Texas has the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy — a stark contrast to other states, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, where the teen birth rate only hovers at around 10.
That's concerning to be sure, but also perhaps not entirely surprising: according to U.S. News & World Report, a recent study by the Texas Freedom Network found that in the 2015-2016 school year, more than 83 percent of school districts in Texas taught students either abstinence-only sex education, or no sex education at all.
In order to reduce teen birth rates, it's pretty obvious that at least one of two things needs to occur: teens need to be having less sex, or they need to be able to access and use reliable methods of birth control. In Texas schools, the focus has traditionally seemed to be in favor of the first option — that is, teaching students that abstinence is the best way to go, if not the only way. But what's more is that a growing number of Texas schools are choosing to completely opt out of providing sex education entirely: according to the Texas Freedeom Network's study, 25.1 percent of districts offered no sex ed at all in 2015-2016, compared to the 2.3 percent of districts who did so in 2007-2008.
That's majorly concerning, especially given the fact that abstinence-only sex ed programs have been shown to be largely ineffective. According to The New York Times, a 2004 Columbia University study of 12,000 teens found that among those who intended to stay abstinent, 88 percent actually ended up having pre-marital sex. What's more is that they actually had roughly the same risk for STIs as those who hadn't pledged abstinence, but were less likely to know they were infected.
And making matters worse? According to Advocates For Youth, a congressional analysis of abstinence-only programs that received federal funding under the Bush Administration found that "over 80 percent of curricula supported by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services contained false, misleading, or distorted information" about reproductive health topics, including the effectiveness of contraception, abortion risk, and the transmission of STIs (no wonder they didn't realize they needed to get checked out).
Then there's the fact that government-funded programs encouraging contraceptive use have proven to be successful at reducing both the teen birth rate as well as the teen abortion rate. In 2009, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment instituted the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, which provided free long-term birth control (like IUDs or implants) to women in the state with the goal of reducing the rate of unintended pregnancy, particularly among teens and young women, according to CBS News. The result? It was pretty remarkable: according to The New York Times, the teen pregnancy rate in Colorado fell by 40 percent between 2009 to 2013, and the rate of abortions amongst teens also fell by 42 percent. Young women aged 20-24 saw a 20 percent drop in birth rate, and an 18 percent drop in abortions, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health.
Similarly, in 2007, The Contraceptive CHOICE Project launched in St. Louis, Missouri offering free contraception and contraceptive counseling to more than 9,000 women for either two or three years, according to The Huffington Post. The majority of study participants opted for long-term birth control methods, and as in Colorado, teens enrolled in the study had a significant lower rate of abortions — 9.7 per 1,000 teens on average, compared to the national average of 41.5 in 2008. As for the teenage birth rate? That hovered at around 6.3 per 1,000 girls enrolled in the program, compared with the national rate of 34.3, according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Even though encouraging comprehensive, fact-based sex education — not to mention giving teens a way of accessing affordable or free contraception — seems like a pretty good strategy of addressing teen pregnancy rates, not everyone is happy about that approach. Texas mother and education activist Alice Linahan told The Texas Tribune she felt "public schools should focus on reading, writing, math and history as the core competency," and that "the social, emotional issues are not the role of the public schools."
And of course, Texas isn't exactly a progressive state as far as reproductive rights are concerned: in addition to restrictive laws like HB-2 that are essentially designed to outlaw women's access to safe, legal abortions, the state most recently pushed to cut Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood — an organization which ultimately helps reduce the teen pregnancy rate by providing access to affordable contraception. That move has since been blocked by a judge, who ruled, according to Reuters, that it would "deprive Medicaid patients of their statutory right to obtain health care from their chosen qualified provider," but it's not likely to be the end of the fight. Following the decision, Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that it was "disappointing" and a ruling that "flies in the face of basic human decency."
The battle over issues like abortion and contraception is one that remains controversial throughout the country, and in Texas especially. But given the high rate of teen pregnancies in the state, it seems way past time to reassess its position on abstinence-only sex education. Providing teens with accurate information about sex and pregnancy prevention has consistently been proven as an effective way to reduce unintended pregnancies, and it shouldn't be taken away or withheld from them just because some parents and educators might feel uncomfortable about it.