PHILADELPHIA — Teenage birth rates tend to be higher in states that are more religiously conservative, possibly because communities in those places discourage contraception, according to a national study.
An article in the open-access journal Reproductive Health reported a high correlation between births to teenagers and states where high percentages of the population subscribe to conservative religious views, such as, “There is only one way to interpret the teachings of my religion” or, “Scripture should be taken literally, word for word.”
Drexel University psychiatrist Joseph Strayhorn said he and co-author Jillian Strayhorn were “astonished” by the strong correlation between teenage births and religious beliefs, even after the figures were adjusted for other factors like differing abortion rates and income levels between states.
The authors compared information on religiosity from the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscapes Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life with teen-birth and abortion statistics that came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mississippi, where more than half of the population self-identifies as being Baptist, topped the list for both conservative religious beliefs and teen-birth rates. At the bottom of the list, New Hampshire ranked last in teen pregnancy and trailed only Vermont in religiosity.
Strayhorn said it would be a mistake to apply the statewide totals to individuals and draw a conclusion like “religious teens get pregnant more often,” but he said the findings do suggest “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.”
Strayhorn admitted that a preference for abstinence-only sex education in conservative communities is just one plausible explanation. He said one factor might be that people in more liberal states tend to delay marriage, while teen marriage is more common in the South.
Strayhorn also said that on an individual level, some teen pregnancies are desirable and that some teen parents carry out their responsibilities very well. But since studies have found children of teenage mothers tend to have higher rates of several unfavorable mental-health outcomes than other children, he said in general that “it is probably true that public policies or cultural practices that reduce the overall rate of teen births are, other things equal, desirable.”
The article is set to appear in an upcoming issue of Reproductive Health, the official journal of the Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research. It is also affiliated with the International Association for Maternal and Neonatal Health.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)