As Government Funding of Sex Education Is Cut, Teen Pregnancy Rates ... Drop?

A new study shows a counter-intuitive trend that undermines a lot of hobby horses of the Left. British researchers have determined that cuts to sex education programs may have contributed to lower teen pregnancy rates in England.

This new study undermines everything from publicly funded sex education, to community health centers in high schools, to access to abortion, to unfettered access to birth control without parental consent. The research also inadvertently demonstrates what happens when the government is relied upon to provide too many entitlements and inevitably has to cut back.

In the study, researchers found that cuts in public expenditures on teen pregnancy programs not only did not lead to an increase in pregnancy, but there was actually a correlation with small reductions in teen pregnancy rates. The abstract of the study reads:

In recent years, English local authorities have been forced to make significant cuts to devolved expenditure. In this paper, we examine the impact of reductions in local expenditure on one particular public health target: reducing rates of teen pregnancy. Contrary to predictions made at the time of the cuts, panel data estimates provide no evidence that areas which reduced expenditure the most have experienced relative increases in teenage pregnancy rates. Rather, expenditure cuts are associated with small reductions in teen pregnancy rates, a result which is robust to a number of alternative specifications and tests for causality. Underlying socio-economic factors such as education outcomes and alcohol consumption are found to be significant predictors of teen pregnancy.

Being a fairly socialist country with government-run single payer health care through the NHS, Great Britain offers quite a menu of entitlements. The authors note that teen pregnancy is considered a significant public health concern, and that the United Kingdom has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world. The UK mounted a campaign to combat teen pregnancy in 1999, called the English Teen Pregnancy Strategy, with the stated goal of cutting the teen pregnancy rate in half by 2010. As the authors note, the cornerstone of the program was SRE – Sex and Relationships Education, along with expanded access to contraception for teenagers.

The plan largely worked, cutting teen pregnancy by 51 percent by 2010. Of course, the answers are more complex than that. Remember that the authors of this current study tell us that socio-economic and educational factors play a large role in these outcomes, outside of the government program. Further, the study notes that proving that public expenditures caused the drop in conception rates among teens is problematic for a couple of reasons. The public grants were determined on the local level based on existing baseline teen pregnancy rates and changed very little over the next decade. Thus it's nearly impossible to determine if or how much the expenditures caused the drop in teen pregnancy rates. This muddying of the waters is exacerbated by the fact that there were so many programs, implemented in so many different localities, that it cannot be determined whether the drop was caused by education, access to contraception, or general societal shifts outside the programs altogether. Nonetheless, the plan did work to some extent.

Fast forward to today and the budget cuts that have been implemented in the UK. Since 2010, the budgets of teenage pregnancy services have been slashed at the local and national level, and local authorities have very limited authority to raise local taxes. Many pundits and politicians expected to see a spike in teen pregnancy, but the opposite has happened. As the authors state in the study, "Despite these warnings, there are arguments to suggest that the impact on teenage pregnancy may not be as bad as feared and, indeed, that spending on projects relating to teenage pregnancy may even be counterproductive."

The authors of the study cites a number of factors that led to this conclusion. The first is to note that many have argued that granting teens increased access to contraceptive products actually leads to an increase in risk-taking behavior. One study showed "significantly higher rates of teenage pregnancy among the intervention group [access to contraception and SRE], as well as increases in a number of other adverse outcomes." The study cites several studies that definitively show that access to birth control has only limited effects on rates of conception among teens: "Put simply, birth control will reduce the risk of pregnancy for sex acts which would have occurred anyway but may increase the risk amongst teenagers who are induced by easier access to birth control either to start having sex or to have sex more frequently." They also note that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) also increase among teens when contraception is made more available, and for the same reason – risk-taking behavior increases. They say the same thing with abortion rates, by the way.

In a way, according to the study, the economic collapse of 2009 and the significant cuts to funding had the serendipitous effect of causing each local agency only to focus on programs that actually worked. Rather than taking a holistic approach, which is all the rage these days among politicians, this study strongly indicates that programs should be chosen based on actual outcomes, not merely because they're a good idea.