It’s hardly shocking, but I guess I need to point out that yet another study has linked religious anti-sex nuttery to increased teenage pregnancy.
The results are limited in some significant ways. First, the data was gathered by state. The results of a 2007 Pew survey of religious attitudes was compared to information from the CDC on teen pregnancy and abortion. Since the results are statewide, and not correlated to specific individuals, it is impossible from this data alone to say that religious attitudes cause more teen pregnancy.
Second, race was not factored into the data, either. This could be significant because African American women are known to under-report both pregnancy and abortion. Finally, people in conservative religious states tend to get married earlier, which could increase teen pregnancy by legitimizing unprotected sex — since they’re married now.
Anyway, with all the caveats out of the way, here’s what the study shows, and what has sparked all the controversy over cause: States with high levels of religious conservativism have the highest rates of teen pregnancy.
The study itself does not assert causation, which is a good thing. John Strayhorn, the author of the study, says this: “We conjecture 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.”
I’m not really sure how I feel about this explanation. I grew up in precisely the same culture this study has isolated. Perhaps things have changed since I was a teen, but I don’t remember a lot of lectures discouraging contraception. Instead, I was constantly warned of the dreadful wrath of God which I would invoke if I had any sort of sex, protected or not.
I can see how this could indirectly discourage contraception, though. None of the teenagers in my youth groups ever carried condoms, and none of the girls were on the pill. If any of their mothers or fathers had found out they had birth control, they’d have gotten grounded for a year. (I’m not kidding.)
The upshot of this is that whenever any of them did get a little too frisky at the end of a date, there was no contraception handy. Teens are not notoriously good at the withdrawal method, which is itself notoriously unreliable, so most of the teens I knew who had sex got pregnant. (Think about it. Women are most horny when they’re ovulating, so it makes sense that they’d ditch their religious training when they’re most fertile.)
So maybe Strayhorn is right, albeit indirectly. In my experience with different denominations, which is considerable, I’ve found that Catholics are the most nutty about contraceptive use. Most of the states that top the teen pregnancy list are dominated by Protestant and “Non-Denominational” evangelical born agains.
Amy Adamczyk, a sociologist from New York, has another suggestion. “Are there just a couple of really precocious religious teenagers who are running around and getting pregnant and having all of these babies, but that’s not the norm?” To be honest, I find this suggestion kind of amusing, but it’s worth thinking about. The Quiverfull Movement has taken hold rather firmly in some communities, and it stands to reason that they’d encourage teens to get married and get to popping out new Warriors For Jesus as soon as possible. My guess, however, is that this movement and others like it are still too small to be causing such a widespread effect in so many states.
Strayhorn tossed his own conceptual monkey wrench into the gears: “It is possible that an anti-contraception attitude could be caused by religious cultures and that could exert its effect mainly on the non-religious individuals in the culture. We don’t know.” I think this possibility misses the mark, though. Again, unless things have changed drastically in the last decade, southern evangelicals don’t preach against contraception. They preach against sex. I suppose it’s possible that the nonreligious could be as afraid of carrying contraception as their religious counterparts, but I’m finding it very difficult to come up with a plausible reason why they would be. Basically, I think the contraception angle just misses the mark.
There’s a lot of conflicting data out there regarding religiosity, teens, and sex. I’m very interested in seeing some of the fog lift as more specific research is done. Regardless of what’s at the bottom of this phenomenon, I think it’s safe to say this: There’s a big problem with teen pregnancy, and conservative religiosity is not helping.