The birthrate among American teenagers has dropped to the lowest level since the government began tracking numbers, and observers are pointing to sex education programs that focus on character as one of the causes.
Having peaked more than 20 years ago, the teen birthrate fell 60 percent, from 61.8 births per 1,000 in 1991 to 24.2 births per 1,000 in 2014, according to an analysis released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) April 28.
The Washington Post noted that sex education programs have changed over the years with fewer crude lessons on how to use contraception and more lessons on the overall development of a child’s character, “approaches that some research has shown may be more effective.”
Richard Ross, co-founder of the True Love Waits movement and professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he could not agree more with the idea that character lessons are more effective.
“Trying to make premarital sex a little less risky is not the ultimate answer,” Ross said. “The primary focus must be given to the hearts, minds and character of the teenagers.”
Such an approach, Ross said, is far more common today than before the advent of True Love Waits (TLW), which is sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources.
“Numerous members of Congress told me in the mid-1990s that True Love Waits had changed the conversation in D.C.,” Ross said. “The explosive growth of the movement revealed to leaders that teenagers are open to considering moral purity and that surprising numbers will choose that lifestyle.”
Valerie Huber, president of Ascend (formerly the National Abstinence Education Association), said contraceptive use among teens has flat-lined and “there is a phenomenon that is hopeful and promising.”
“Waiting for sex is a message that is resonating with youth,” Huber said. “It is relevant. And we need to find more and better ways to encourage and reinforce this healthy behavior rather than encouraging and normalizing teen sex.”
According to the CDC, Huber said, over the past 20 years the percentage of teens who have ever had sex has decreased by more than 15 percent, something she called highly significant. “More teens are waiting,” she said.
Ascend partnered with The Barna Group to ask teenagers why they were waiting to have sex, and fear of pregnancy was low on the list, Huber said.
The study, soon to be released in full, revealed:
42 percent wait because of personal values
42 percent wait for a committed relationship
30 percent fear pregnancy
22 percent fear getting an STD
In its most recent analysis, the CDC said despite record declines in the teen birthrate, racial/ethnic and geographic disparities persist. Community-level interventions that address the social conditions associated with high teen birthrates might further reduce those disparities, the CDC said.
Ross identified three needs going forward.
“First, our youth pastors just out of college were in diapers when TLW swept the nation and world. Many have not seen the way that teenage believers embrace this message,” Ross said. “They have not seen the empowerment the teenagers experience when they discover that large numbers of their peers are choosing the same values and lifestyle.”
Seasoned leaders need to mentor younger leaders, Ross said, to open their eyes to the value of addressing the topic with a new generation of teenagers. He pointed to the True Love Project by LifeWay as an ideal way to teach and lead teenagers on the subject.
“Second, the church must find new ways to equip parents to lead out on this issue at home,” Ross said. “The research consistently says that Mom and Dad almost always are the most powerful voices and influences. On the issue of sexual purity, parents cannot be content to outsource all the teaching to the church.”
Also, church leaders and parents need to do much better tying the issue of sexual purity to Jesus, Ross said.
“Moralism is not a motivator. Cold religion is not either. We need a new generation of teenage believers who say, ‘I live my life in purity because I love and adore Jesus.’ … Even in a decaying culture, teenagers can live in purity if they are doing so for King Jesus,” Ross said.
Huber said teens deserve to receive information and a culture-wide reinforcement of messaging that equips and empowers them to wait for sex.
“More teens are waiting for sex despite the fact that nearly every message that teens receive regarding sex is one that sends an expectation that they are – or very shortly will be – sexually active,” Huber said.
But if societal messages sent the expectation that teens would not engage in sex and then caring adults at every juncture reinforced healthy choices, the positive numbers would become more positive, Huber said.
“While a drop in teen birthrates is great, that is only part of the picture of what teen sexual health looks like,” Huber said. “Only by avoiding all the risks of sex can teens enjoy optimal sexual health.”
Huber cited “tremendous progress” in federal sex education policy this year. Among the gains:
An analysis published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in March indicates that fewer communities are comfortable with contraceptive instruction, the focus of the Obama administration’s well-funded Teen Pregnancy Prevention program. A survey found birth control instruction had decreased, instruction on the benefits of waiting until marriage for sex had increased, and sexual risk avoidance education enjoyed strong support. “The authors begrudgingly acknowledge that the increase in SRA [Sexual Risk Avoidance] education, despite its decreased federal funding, ‘shows the continued salience of this approach to sex education,’“ Ascend said in a news release April 21.
Ascend and the Family Research Council presented a congressional briefing called “Sexual Risk Avoidance Education: Bypassing the Road to Poverty,” which drew a standing-room-only crowd of congressional staffers from both sides of the political aisle in February, Ascend said. The briefing emphasized that SRA education is vital to helping youth avoid the potentially devastating impact of poverty on future success.
In March, a coalition of supporters of the SRA message commended the House and Senate Appropriations Committees for three specific changes in sex education policy: renaming the Competitive Abstinence Education program to the Sexual Risk Avoidance program; inserting key concepts from the Healthy Relationships Act to serve as the legislative definition for SRA education; and doubling the funding for the SRA program without making similar increases to the president’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention program.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is a writer in Nashville.)