Some social liberals used a recently published study in Reproductive Health that found a strong link between high religiosity and teen pregnancy rates to further their case for why abstinence-only sex education doesn't work.
Double XX, Mother Jones, Bonnie Erbe at U.S. News & World Report, and Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic say the results of "Religiosity and Teen Birth Rates"—which found higher teen birth rates in the most religiously conservative states, even after controlling for differences in income and abortions—point to conservatives' hypocrisy on family values. The researchers, father-daughter team Joseph and Jillian Strayhorn, speculated that perhaps teens in highly religious states are more likely to become pregnant because they are less likely to know about or use contraception. Jillian's work went toward fulfilling an advanced home-schooling course in statistics, roughly equivalent to a sophomore college course in regression analytics. (Dr. Strayhorn noted that "ironically, one or two of the bloggers I read who used our article to slam religion also slammed home-schooling.")
After reading such interpretations, Her.meneutics regular Christine A. Scheller decided to interview Dr. Strayhorn, associate professor of psychiatry at Drexel University College of Medicine.
You said that your research "has already made many people angry." What about it has provoked such hostility?
The three topics most likely to anger people are sex, religion, and politics, and our article concerns all three. Various people have said that it's bad research, not worth the money of whoever funded it, ignorant, biased, and so forth. Many critics dismissed the findings as a result of fewer abortions in more religious states, or of greater poverty in more religious states, not understanding or probably not reading about our attempts to control for these variables. Some commented that the excess of teen births was the fault of African Americans or Hispanics.
Is there legitimacy to the criticism?
After the article was published, we did another analysis taking into account the percent of the population for each state that was African American. This variable accounted for a non-significant fraction of the variation in teen birth rates in addition to that accounted for by religiosity and income.
We'll speak later to the issue of abortion and income, since you have honored us by a request for some explanation of the statistical techniques involved in controlling for these variables.
Your study begins with this background statement:
The children of teen mothers have been reported to have higher rates of several unfavorable mental health outcomes. Past research suggests several possible mechanisms for an association between religiosity and teen birth rate in communities.
How are mental health outcomes and teen parenting linked, and how do they relate to religiosity?
Some research has suggested that the social disadvantage that seems to accompany teen birth is the main causal factor for poor [mental health] outcomes. As to the relation of teen parenting to religiosity, one might predict that the emphasis on self-control and morality would result in lower teen births by religion, and some research points in that direction. One might also predict that teaching abstinence, as promoted by many religious leaders, could result in less preparation for use of contraception, which in turn could lead to more births when resolutions are not kept—and some research also points in that direction. Thus, for a social scientist, the research question was a good one in that whatever the results, they would be interesting …
How did you come up with the conclusion that religious communities may be less likely to use birth control? Is this scientific or personal opinion?
When we asked ourselves, "What about religious culture could possibly account for an increase in teen births?" we figured that it was unlikely to be, "A soft answer turneth away wrath," or "Blessed are the peacemakers," or "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
We figured it was more likely something like, "The church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable."
This quote is a statement from the Vatican; it's well known that the Catholic Church's official position is that contraception, even when used by married couples, is a "grave sin." (Mitigating the predicted effect of this teaching is that a rather high fraction of U.S. Catholics appear to disregard it.) Many Protestant leaders, without condemning contraception within marriage, strongly condemn teaching teens how to use contraception.
The poll we mentioned at the beginning of the report is one piece of evidence about attitudes toward sexuality and teaching contraception. The impetus for abstinence-only sex education appears to have been from religious conservatives. Focus on the Family's online statement about abstinence education reads as follows: "Because we support God's perfect plan, Focus on the Family does not support the teaching of risk-reduction (contraceptives) of sexual behaviors in schools. Rather, we recognize youth must understand that contraceptive devices and drugs provide very limited protection …."
Also, a New York Times article on the anti-contraception movement seemed to confirm the impression that the impetus against contraception is primarily religious in motivation.
Are you affiliated with any group, religious or otherwise, that might have unduly influenced your study?
Regarding groups religious, we have been affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church, which probably influenced us at least a little toward a variety of philosophical positions. One is the idea that questions of social policy should be justified on the basis of their results—i.e., whether they in the net produce more positive or negative effects for people, and not on the basis of claims of knowing what God's plan is. Another is that ethical religious beliefs should be responsive to the accumulation of evidence, rather than immutable and irreformable decrees that render scientific evidence irrelevant. A third is that discourse between people of different religious orientations should be as civil and polite as possible, even when people strongly disagree.
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