General Articles

Religious States and High Teen Birth Rates: Researchers Uncover a Strong Correlation

Source: Joseph M. Strayhorn and Jillian C. Strayhorn, “Religiosity and Teen Birth Rate in the United States,” Reproductive Health 6.14 (September 2009).

This study explored the relationship between religiosity and teen birth rates in the United States. Researchers gathered state-based data relating to religiosity, teen birth rates, abortion rates, and income levels from publicly accessible resources.
In order to determine the religiosity of a state, researchers compiled data from the U.S. Religious Landscapes Survey, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey, conducted in 2007 and 2008, used a sample of 35,957 participants who answered questions through a telephone survey. Researchers used eight questions from the survey to gauge religiosity. They then noted the percentage of participants in each state who answered with the most conservative religious responses (below). Finally, the authors assigned a composite score for religiosity to each state by averaging the percentages from the eight questions. The most conservative answers or statements endorsed by participants are listed here:
  1. Belief in a God or universal spirit: Absolutely Certain.
  2. There is only one way to interpret the teachings of my religion.
  3. Scripture should be taken literally, word for word.
  4. How important is religion in your life: Very Important.
  5. My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.
  6. Frequency of attendance at religious services: at least once a week.
  7. Frequency of prayer: at least once a day.
  8. How often do you receive a definite answer to a specific prayer request: at least once a month.
Teen birth rates for each state were then obtained from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The birth rate data was collected in 2006, but is the latest available.
In order to account for potential confounding variables, researchers also collected data concerning household income as well as abortion rates. They collected data concerning median household income for each state from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2006-2007. For abortion rates within each state, researchers statistically estimated the percentage of abortions provided to teenagers based on the total percentage of abortions (provided to adults and teenagers) reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This data was then cross-checked with data from the Guttmacher Institute.  
After collecting data for the variables, researchers used statistical analyses to determine if a true, significant correlation exists between religiosity and teen birth rates.
Key Findings:
·         Religiosity of a state was found to be very highly correlated with teen birth rates, such that more religious states have higher teen birth rates.
·         When controlling for income to ensure that the correlation cannot be attributed to household income, the analyses indicated that the correlation between religiosity and teen birth rates was still highly significant.
·         In controlling for abortion rates and income, analyses continued to show a strong and significant correlation between the two main variables of religiosity and teen birth rates.
·         Along with the composite religiosity score being correlated with teen birth rates, each individual question was analyzed separately; each of the eight questions related to high religiosity also correlated with high birth rates.
·         Teen birth rates were, in some cases, more highly correlated to the religiosity questions than some of the questions were to each other.
·         Low religiosity, or “irreligiosity,” correlated with lower teen birth rates.
SIECUS Analysis:
The researchers concluded that “conservative religious communities in the U.S. are more successful in discouraging use of contraception among their teen community members than in discouraging sexual intercourse itself.” While the governments and most citizens of these religious states express the desire to lower teen pregnancy rates, they fail to recognize that their policies and methods are in fact counterproductive to their goals.
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—popular in states with high religiosity scores—are a perfect example of these failed initiatives. These curricula try to discourage sexual activity and, in so doing, often suggest that all contraceptive methods are ineffective. SIECUS has always pointed out our concern when reviewing abstinence-only curricula, that these discouraging messages about contraception would not keep teens abstinent, but would likely keep them from using birth control or condoms.
Studies of virginity pledges—a cornerstone of most abstinence-only curricula—provide additional evidence that discouraging sexual activity and contraceptive use will lead to dangerous outcomes. Researchers found that young people who took the pledges were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged. Further research has confirmed that although some students who take pledges delay intercourse, ultimately they are equally as likely to contract an STD as their non-pledging peers.[1] Far from providing a solution to the complex problem of unintended pregnancy and disease transmission, these simplistic pledges are undermining the use of contraception among teens, potentially exposing them to greater harm.
Although many conservative religious communities support failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and virginity pledges, the authors of this article do not conclude that high religiosity is the problem.  There are certainly many devout religious communities that support providing young people with accurate information about condoms and contraception. However, this article should be another clear call to conservative religious communities and politicians that their sexual health policies are not even achieving the goals they have set out for themselves. 
If governments and communities are truly interested in helping young people prevent unintended pregnancies, as well as STDs and HIV, they should stop supporting programs and policies that discourage contraceptive use and focus solely on abstinence. Instead, it is imperative that we reach all of our country’s young people with age-appropriate, medically accurate, and non-judgmental information about condoms and contraception.

[1] P. Bearman and H. Brückner, "Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse," American Journal of Sociology, vol. 106, no. 4 (2001), pp. 859-912; P. Bearman, et al., “The Relationship Between Virginity Pledges in Adolescence and STD Acquisition in Young Adulthood,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 110, no. 1 (2004), pp. 44-92.