Feb 10 States with more comprehensive sex education programs had lower teen birth rates, but the effect seemed to be due more to political, religious and social differences in U.S. communities than the sex education itself, according to a study.
Whether school sexual education programs should include any guidance other than abstinence has been for years the topic of political and cultural debate in many parts of the United States.
"Although the teen birth rates and teen pregnancy rates are dropping year after year ... we still have disparities between states, and we have higher teen birth and teen pregnancy rates when we're compared to other industrialized countries," said Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, from Washington University in St. Louis, who worked on the study.
She and her team compared school curricula for 24 states with the birth rates of girls aged 15 to 17 in those states between 1997 and 2005.
They found wide variation over the study period, from one birth in every 100 New Hampshire girls each year to three or four births for every 100 Arkansas girls.
In general, the more school districts in a particular state that covered how to use a condom, how to prevent HIV and other sex education topics, the fewer teen births there were, the researchers reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
But when they took into account race, poverty and crime levels in the states, much of the link disappeared, with poorer states that had more minorities and more crime having less sex education and more teen births.
When religion and laws on abortion were taken into account, sex education programs themselves no longer predicted birth rates.
"The effects of sexuality education were constrained by state characteristics and do not independently explain the considerable variations in adolescent birthrates found across states," wrote Cavazos-Rehg and her colleagues.
"Our findings underscore the strong influence of state characteristics on adolescent birthrates above and beyond sexuality education."
Researchers said there are a number of ways to interpret the findings, although none of them suggest teens can't learn from sex education.
First, conservative and religious states might teach sex ed in a less effective way than liberal ones, meaning that more teens in those states end up pregnant.
"There can be enormous variation between what goes on in one state and what goes on in another state even if they both indicate that they discuss how to use a condom or pregnancy prevention," said Amy Bleakley, who studies teen sexual behavior and reproductive health at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Or it could be that teen pregnancy rates are more similar between states, but in places with liberal abortion laws, more adolescent girls end their pregnancies early.
Cavazos-Rehg said that abortions may account for some of the difference in birth rates, but not entirely. Although data on pregnancy rates are less comprehensive, her research has still shown much higher teen pregnancy rates in Arkansas and Mississippi, for example, than in New England.
Experts agreed that sex education programs can be improved -- both by raising standards on what goes into them, and also by including not only how to use contraception, but the consequences of being pregnant and having a baby as well. (Reporting from New York by Genevra Pittman; editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte)