As Teen Pregnancy Rates Rise, Times and Post Blame Abstinence Education.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that for the first time in more than a decade, the teen birth rate has increased by 3 percent


The New York Times and The Washington Post used the report to take yet another shot at abstinence-only education.  The Times salvo came in the first paragraph, saying that the finding “fueled the debate about whether the Bush administration's abstinence-only education efforts were working.”

The Times bemoaned the money spent annually on abstinence education (currently $176 million), quoted President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address praising abstinence and adoption as a means of keeping the teen pregnancy rate down, and quoted Senator Hillary Clinton's speech last year saying teen pregnancy rates were down during the Clinton administration because of a “focus on family planning.”  The Times also made a push for the morning-after pill.

“Helping to prevent these pregnancies was the reason advocates pushed for the wide availability of the morning-after pill known as Plan B. The Food and Drug Administration approved sales of Plan B without a prescription in August 2006, too late to have any effect on that year's birth rate.”

By contrast the Post waited until paragraph six to mention abstinence but said the data “reignited the debate about abstinence-only sex-education programs” and included a comment from the president of Planned Parenthood that this new data presented a “crisis” and that the “national policy” of abstinence-only education “isn't working.”

Both papers failed to acknowledge an important fact in their reporting on the monies received for abstinence education.  Abstinence-only education programs receive one-tenth of the funding of “comprehensive sex-education programs,” the kind favored by Planned Parenthood, according to the Abstinence Clearinghouse.

The release of the CDC stats and the reporting fit a trend noted by CMI in a report called Sex, Lies and Bias.  Whenever Congress is debating funding for abstinence education, the media invariably run stories attacking or questioning the efficacy of the programs.  The Post story on the rise in teen pregnancies noted that Congress is currently considering whether to increase abstinence funding by $28 million.

Both papers gave some ink to abstinence supporters, but overall, The Post was more balanced. The Post quoted Leslee Unruh from the Abstinence Clearinghouse, who said,

This shows that the contraceptive message that kids are getting is failing. The contraceptive-only message is treating the symptom, not the cause. You need to teach about relationships. If you look at what kids have to digest on a daily basis, you have adults teaching kids about the pleasures of sex but not about the responsibilities that go with it.

After citing Unruh, the Post used the remaining 13 paragraphs to explore other “factors that could be playing a role” in the statistical increase.

The Times quoted Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. 

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said that blaming abstinence-only programs was 'stupid.' Mr. Rector said that most young women who became pregnant were highly educated about contraceptives but wanted to have babies. 

Later in the story, Rector was quoted again.

Mr. Rector of the Heritage Foundation said that teenage and unmarried birth rates were driven by the same factors: young women with little education who are devoted to mothering but see no great need to be married. “We should be telling them that for the well-being of any child, it's critically important that you be over the age of 20 and that you be married,” he said. “That message is not given at all.”

Immediately following the Rector quote the Times countered with Dr. John Santelli from Columbia University.

Dr. Santelli of Columbia said that many abstinence-only educational efforts tended to emphasize that contraceptives often fail. “They scare kids about contraception,'”he said. 

As noted in a recent CMI column, research on condom failure rates should leave kids scared about the risks.

In 2003, the Boston Globe reported on a UN report that “looked at two decades of scientific literature on condoms”:

“A draft report for the UN's AIDS agency has found that even when people use condoms consistently, the failure rate for protection against HIV is an estimated 10 percent, making them a larger risk than portrayed by many advocate groups.”

The American Journal of Public Health in June 2003 reported on a program among African-American female adolescents that showed that “17.8 percent of the adolescents acquired an STD despite 100 percent condom use.” Also, condoms and contraception do not provide protection against many other sexually transmitted diseases like Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the chief cause of cervical cancer.

While the Post did an overall more balanced job, both papers took the standard, biased media approach by questioning federal funding of abstinence education while ignoring the enormous monies spent on condom-based sex education.

To see how CNN covered the story, click here to see the NewsBusters story.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.