Religious beliefs affect teen birth rate

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U.S. states whose residents have more conservative religious beliefs tend to have higher rates of teen pregnancy according to a new study in the journal Reproductive Health. The likely reason, according to the researchers, is that teens in religious communities are less likely to use contraception, as the primary education received is that of abstinence.

In the survey, religiosity was defined by the percentage of positive answers to an eight-question survey issued to over 35,000 participants across the United States. Data was aggregated by state, and the overall population in states that agreed with over 70% of the questions posed was considered “very religious”. The states with the highest scores had more teen births and fewer abortions.

The majority of the states with high birth rates, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, were Southern States, including Mississippi with the highest rate of teenage pregnancy. Southern states have earned the nickname “Bible Belt” because of its conservative Evangelical Protestant views, primarily of the Baptist faith.

Statistically, over 80% of Evangelical Christians believe that it is morally wrong for unmarried people to engage in sexual intercourse, compared with around 30% of the general population. Evangelical Christians believe that public schools, being funded by government sources, should promote abstinence as the only form of birth control, instead of including a comprehensive program that includes teachings about methods such as condoms or birth-control pills.

Interestingly, Utah, known for its Mormon religious beliefs scored high in religiosity, but low in teen birth rate. The Mormon doctrine stresses sex only after marriage as do most religious bodies, but the official stance of the Church is to leave the choice of birth control method up to the couple.

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Overall, there was an 86% decline in the incidence of teen pregnancy between the years 1995 and 2002. This was attributed to improved contraceptive availability to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases, such as HIV. However, in 2009, the rate of teenage girls giving birth in the United States rose for a second year, reversing the 14-year decline.

Teaching teens abstinence without providing a full comprehensive sex-education program may be morally appropriate, but could have unwanted effects. For example, research by JE Rosenbaum in the 2009 journal Pediatrics found that teens who took a “virginity pledge” were actually more likely to engage in unprotected sex that those who did not. Moralistic attitudes toward sexuality actually increased the likelihood of pregnancy by discouraging contraception without successfully discouraging sexual intercourse.

The researchers warn against too much inference to the study results. Factors that also influence teen birth rates include income level, education level, and active communication within the family.

Sources include: Reproductive Health Journal, Centers for Disease Control, and the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints.

Related story: Abstinence Only Teaching and Its Risks for Teens

Written by Denise Reynolds
Charlotte, NC
Exclusive to eMaxHealth

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