A Philosopher's Blog

Abstinence, Texas and Teen Pregnancy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2017
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While the United States has seen declining rates of teen pregnancy (along with a very slight reduction in self-reported teen sexual activity), Texas has the slowest rate of decline. In a typical year, 35,000 Texan teenagers and women under 20 get pregnant. Texas also leads the nation in repeat teen pregnancies. As would be suspected, researchers wondered why this was the case and investigated. The finding was hardly surprising. While many states have addressed the problem of unplanned teen pregnancies by education and social services support, Texas has elected to take a different approach. Most Texas schools offer either no sex education or abstinence only sex education. While many states offer contraception counselling to teen mothers, Texas generally does not—hence Texas leads the country in repeat teenage pregnancies. Texas also has rather restrictive policies regarding contraception for teenagers, although the evidence clearly shows that access to contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies (and hence also reduces the number of abortions). Despite the solid evidence linking Texas’ approach to its problem with teen pregnancy, the view of many social conservatives is that abstinence only education is the best approach. This is a rather problematic view.

Looked at in the context of the objective data on teen pregnancy, Texas’ abstinence only (or no sex education at all) approach is clearly not the best. If, of course, the best approach is the one that most effectively reduces unplanned teen pregnancies. To use the obvious analogy, it is as if Texas was trying to reduce automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities involving teenagers by offering them either no driver education or driver education that says not to drive or get in cars. Texas is also doing the equivalent of trying to ensure teens who do get in cars do so without access to seat belts, air bags and other safety equipment. The absurdity of this approach should be evident on the face of it. This, of course, assumes that the best approach is defined in terms of reducing unplanned teen pregnancies. However, there are other ways to evaluate approaches to addressing teen pregnancy.

One alternative approach is to select the method that is regarded as morally best, defined in terms of the moral principles used to make this assessment. For some conservatives, premarital sex is morally wrong. On this view, Texas is taking the right approach because unmarried teenagers should be practicing abstinence and enabling them to understand and access birth control would be to contribute to their immoral deeds. To use an analogy, consider murder. Since murder is wrong, schools should teach an abstinence only approach to murder and not enable people easy access to implements of murder (except guns; this is not only America but Texas).

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is to point out that the moral righteousness of those who deny teenagers proper sex education and access to contraceptives comes at the cost of considerable harm to the teenagers and society. Allowing this harm to occur to others simply so one can impose their own values seems to be morally unacceptable on utilitarian grounds.  There is also the moral concern about the rights of the teenagers to make their own informed choices about consensual sexual behavior. The imposition of the values of the social conservatives denies them this right and infringes on their freedom. Naturally, those who value abstinence and oppose contraception are free to act on this view themselves—they have every right to not engage in sex or to not use contraception when they do so. They do not, however, have the right to cause harm to others because of their views of sex.

Interestingly, the Texas approach can be seen as the best approach by considering an alternative set of goals. As noted above, if the goal is reducing unwanted teen pregnancies, then the Texas approach is a poor one. However, if there are different goals, then the approach could be regarded as a success. One possible goal is to ensure that the poor and uneducated remain that way. After all, unplanned pregnancies are most likely to occur among the poor and uneducated and they make it harder for people to rise out of poverty and also to achieve educational goals. Maintaining a poor and uneducated population confers some significant benefits to the upper classes and also meshes with some morally repugnant ideological views. Another possible goal is to “keep women in their place” by making it more likely that they will get pregnant as teenagers. This is a variant of the goal of maintaining an underclass; in this case the specific targets are girls and young women.

While a utilitarian case could, perhaps, be made for using these policies to help maintain the underclasses, the harms caused by them do seem to outweigh the advantages gained by the upper classes. As such, policies aimed at maintaining the underclasses would seem morally wrong.

In light of the above discussion, Texas’ approach to teenage pregnancy is either merely ineffective or immoral (or both). As such, the policies in Texas should be replaced by those that have proven effective elsewhere. Or not. Texas being the worst does have the benefit of allowing other states to look down at Texas and this does have a certain appeal.


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18 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on June 7, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Indeed, Texas likes kids:

    The leaders of Texas’ biggest universities often describe their schools as essentially small cities. If that’s true, Texas A&M University is a boomtown.

    Enrollment has exploded at A&M in the past decade. In 2010, the university had just under 50,000 students, a bit smaller than the University of Texas at Austin. Now, that number is over 66,000, making A&M easily the biggest school in the state and one of the biggest in the country.


  2. DH said, on June 8, 2017 at 7:47 am

    Mike, once again, you are demonstrating a clear disdain for any sort of critical thinking, and an acceptance of obvious logical fallacies in order to support your political opinion.
    Please don’t get me wrong – it is quite possible that the conclusions you draw are at least contributing factors, but the facts you cite are incomplete at best. Your logic, broken down, is thus:

    1. The rate of unwanted teen pregnancy in Texas is declining at a rate slower than the rest of the country.
    2. Texas does not teach sex education, or teaches “abstinence only” in the public school system.

    Therefore, the lack of sex education in public schools is responsible for teen pregnancy – AND
    Therefore, this is the fault of Conservatives.

    Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc?

    Here’s another one:

    1. Teaching sex education in schools is the best way to prevent unwanted teen pregnancy
    2. Texas does not teach sex education in schools

    Therefore, Texas actually wants teenagers to become pregnant, to “keep them in their place”.

    That one is completely absurd. Here is another example of the exact same logic – I wonder if you would support the conclusion, drawn in the same way –

    1. In most states, welfare benefits increase relative to the number of children in the family
    2. The rate of pregnancy among welfare recipients is THREE TIMES that of non-welfare recipients

    Therefore, the US government is encouraging pregnancy because they WANT to create a dependent class of people to increase their own power and scope.

    If you drill down into the facts presented by the New England Journal of Medicine article you cite, according to their “Table 1”, the breakdown of unwanted pregnancies would challenge the education correlation. According to the table, as a national average, the highest decline in unwanted pregnancies occurred among NON-High School graduates (-28%), and the lowest among those receiving a diploma (-2%).

    Therefore, by the very logic you follow, staying in high school actually contributes to teen pregnancy. Can we presume that this is because sex-education is taught in high school, and possibly conclude that the tacit approval of pre-marital sex by authorities encourages promiscuous behavior?

    I might argue a different point – based on the adage “You can guarantee delivery, but you cannot guarantee reception”. Teenagers tend to rebel against authority – they are taught to avoid cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol – but peer pressure is often a stronger motivation than factual classroom information. Could this be a factor in the paltry reduction in teen pregnancy for those who stay in school?

    There are other scholarly articles that attribute the decline in teen pregnancy rate directly to abstinence and a change in sexual behavior. John S. Santelli, MD, et al published an article titled “Can changes in sexual behaviors among high school students explain the decline in teen pregnancy rates in the 1990s?”


    In this article, Santelli et all report that, “Overall, 53% of the decline in pregnancy rates can be attributed to decreased sexual experience (95%CI 26% to 79%) and 47% to improved contraceptive use (95%CI 21% to 74%).”

    In that study, abstinence is a greater contributor to the reduction in pregnancy than condom or other preventative use. There is no study that I am aware of that compares the overall use of preventative measures to government-provided prevention, which I think is the unspoken point of all of this.

    Of course, if I am to follow my own advice and consider these factors critically, I would have to include this statement from the same article:

    “Care should be taken in attributing changes in pregnancy rates to changes in behavior, given broad confidence intervals around these estimates. These data suggest that both delayed initiation of sexual intercourse and improved contraceptive practice contributed equally to declines in pregnancy rates among high school-aged teens during the 1990s; however, estimates varied among racial and ethnic groups.”

    Other factors are racial, ethnic, and based on income level. Texas has a high Hispanic population, and the rate of unwanted pregnancy is statistically higher among Hispanics. Could this be a cultural phenomenon? Could it be related to illegal immigration and “anchor babies?”

    Your analysis completely ignores those factors, depending only on the single argument that supports your political views – that this is yet another way in which Liberals = Good, Conservatives = Bad.

    In sum, merely stating that Texas lags behind the rest of the country in reducing unwanted teen pregnancy is not reason enough to conclude that the the blame rests on school system (or Conservatives). The data does not support ANY single cause, and is a classic example of Correlation Equals Causation.

    This is another example of forming a political opinion, then seeking support for that opinion by ignoring logic and eschewing valid research methodologies.

    I happen to believe that sex-education in schools is probably a good thing, but this belief is at odds with my belief that the scope of the federal government should be curtailed. I can understand the liberal rush to judgment against a fiercely independent state like Texas, but I would strongly advise extreme caution in employing logical fallacies or incomplete research in support of the expansion of an entity from which there is likely no return.

    Again, Mike, this is where I perceive you as being part of the problem. You are a published, respected, professional philosopher and academician – your credentials alone likely increase your credibility; however, when the arguments you present are as replete with fallacy and incomplete research as this one, the conclusions can easily be challenged – but why would anyone want to? If you, with all your credentials say it is so, (and especially if you support what we believe anyway), why look any further?

    • WTP said, on June 8, 2017 at 8:45 am

      Your analysis completely ignores those factors, depending only on the single argument that supports your political views – that this is yet another way in which Liberals = Good, Conservatives = Bad.

      B-b-b-but Mike himself, and who would be a better authority on Mike himself than Mike himself, endeavors to always advance arguments and consider opposing viewpoints. And on top of that, he has a PhD. From The Ohio State University. Obviously, you are the one who is in the wrong here. I think you owe Mike an apology.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 9, 2017 at 6:38 pm

      The hoc fallacies are not committed because reasons are advanced connecting the alleged cause and effect. Naturally, I could be wrong about the connection.

      To use an analogy, if a state decided to do away with gun safety training requirements for hunting licenses and firearm injuries increased, then it would be reasonable to consider a causal connection. After all, we know that education can impact behavioral competence: people who are ignorant of how to safely do X tend to fail at doing X safely. Naturally, there might be no connection-but it would not be a post hoc or cum hoc fallacy to engage in this inference. Just saying “hunter ed was abolished, hunting accident went up so that was the cause” would be post hoc, of course. In the case of sex ed, as noted above, those who act in ignorance of safety tend to have more accidents. As such, not post hoc. Could still be wrong, of course.

      • WTP said, on June 9, 2017 at 10:49 pm

        Matthew 7:3-4. And just in case you’re hip, I am totally cool with 7:1-2. Can you say the same?

      • DH said, on June 11, 2017 at 11:06 am

        “it would be reasonable to consider a causal connection”. I totally agree. “Consider”. Among other factors.
        Perhaps that’s what the researchers you cite did in their work, or perhaps not. There is other research out there, their own research may be incomplete or flawed. Your job, as an academic, a logician, and a critical thinker is to not only consider their causal relationship, but to consider their arguments and others as well – but that’s not what you did, and that’s the issue I have with your essays.

        “While many states offer contraception counselling to teen mothers, Texas generally does not—hence Texas leads the country in repeat teenage pregnancies.”

        That is not considering – that is concluding. Cogito Ergo Sum.

        “Texas also has rather restrictive policies regarding contraception for teenagers, although the evidence clearly shows that access to contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies (and hence also reduces the number of abortions).”

        This is incorrect. You are (purposely?) misinterpreting the results. What the evidence clearly shows is that the USE of contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies and number of abortions.

        In their peer-reviewed, published study titled “Preventing Unintended Pregnancy by Providing No-Cost Contraception” (DOI: http://10.1097/AOG.0b013e318273eb56), Peipert, Madden et al, after providing reversible contraceptive methods to a selected cohort of participants, stated in their conclusion, “We noted a clinically and statistically significant reduction in abortion rates, repeat abortions, and teenage birth rates.”

        Fair enough. But they went on to say, “Unintended pregnancies MAY [my caps] be reduced by providing no-cost contraception and promoting the most effective contraceptive methods.


        Do you see the difference?

  3. TJB said, on June 8, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    More video games and porn = less teen pregnancy.

  4. CoffeeTime said, on June 8, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    What is the source data for the assertion “Texas has the slowest rate of decline” (of teen pregnancy)?

    I followed the link to the NPR story. That said “And while rates of teen pregnancy are on the decline nationwide, in Texas the rate of decline is slower.” “Slower”, not “slowest”. Slower than all the others, or slower than the average? The focus of that story was the study by Dr. DeCesare at. al., so I read that study, but it doesn’t address trends over time at all.

    I then downloaded the Guttmacher 2014 paper that was cited in DeCesare at. al., and it does contain data by state for years, with 2-5 year intervals, from 1988 to 2010 in “Table 3.3 State-specific rates of pregnancy, birth and abortion among women aged 15–19”, by year. I popped that into a spreadsheet, and found that Texas was in 28th place in terms of trend, in a statistical tie with Rhode Island.

    I found thenationalcampaign.org, which presents an interactive interface, and on choosing the change in teen birth rate from 1991 to 2015, I find Texas in 36th place, tied with Alaska, New Mexico, and Iowa. In this ranking, Texas was down by 56%, compared with a national average decrease of 64%.

    Of course, trend measures are very sensitive to start and end points, as well as to the selection and processing of the raw data, so it is possible that some other formulation and interval might find Texas to have the slowest rate of decline. If there is such a source, I’d be interested to compare it with the others.

    • DH said, on June 9, 2017 at 10:39 am

      These are all fair points. This is a very complex issue and, as is so often the case, there is a multiplicity of causative factors. In fact, we are likely to observe similar results due to completely different factors from one state to another, one region to another, one demographic to another, one ethnicity to another.

      To draw a conclusion with as much impact as this one without considering all factors, and to draw that conclusion based on logical fallacies is not only disingenuous, but dangerous.

      Let me correct that.

      To draw such conclusions based on fallacies and a limited set of factors is very common, and even to be expected among a poorly-read, impassioned partisan population like that of the US. For educated people, or those in the media (I do make the distinction) it is disingenuous, dishonest, and dangerous. They should know better, or their editors should know better, or they should be taught.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 9, 2017 at 6:31 pm

      When considering the data, be sure to control for income and education, which is what the study mentioned did.

    • CoffeeTime said, on June 10, 2017 at 7:23 am

      The featured study (DeCesare) did not have any concept of state averages, and said nothing about Texas as a state.

      The featured study (DeCesare) did not have any concept of trend over time; it did not measure, and said nothing about, the rate of decline anywhere, including in the county clusters it did work with.

      The study said nothing about Texas as a state, and certainly nothing about the rate of decline in Texas.

      Therefore the study does not support the assertion “Texas has the slowest rate of decline”.

      The poster for the study is here, if anybody wants to verify. It’s short, and clear.


      There is a common pattern:

      1. A researcher does a study.
      2. A reporter for a news organisation whose audience will approve of some part of the study writes a story about it. The reporter may report the findings of the study selectively, or may also draw on other sources without citing them. This can create generalisations or simplifications within the text that are not supported by the study in question.
      3. The audience of that organisation will tweet, Facebook, blog about the story, driving traffic to the organisation, headlining the soundbite oversimplifications that reinforce their biases.
      4. These dubious or false factoids then make their way around social media and everyday conversations.

  5. TJB said, on June 9, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Actually there is a study on this issue:

    In recent years, English local authorities have been forced to make significant cuts to devolved expenditure. In this paper, we examine the impact of reductions in local expenditure on one particular public health target: reducing rates of teen pregnancy. Contrary to predictions made at the time of the cuts, panel data estimates provide no evidence that areas which reduced expenditure the most have experienced relative increases in teenage pregnancy rates. Rather, expenditure cuts are associated with small reductions in teen pregnancy rates, a result which is robust to a number of alternative specifications and tests for causality. Underlying socio-economic factors such as education outcomes and alcohol consumption are found to be significant predictors of teen pregnancy.


  6. DH said, on June 9, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    During WWI, the US Army decided that they wanted to protect soldiers from head injuries, so they began issuing steel helmets to all soldiers, and conducted a study of the effects.

    To their surprise, both the total number and the rate of head injuries went up by a substantial margin. Why?

    1. The helmets did not work as expected.
    2. Soldiers did not wear them
    3. Soldiers did wear them, but took more chances and got injured more overall
    4. Soldiers did wear them, but the effect of the helmets was offset by increased battle activity
    5. The helmets were more effective in preventing deaths, which were reported differently. The increase in the number and rate of head injuries offset the decrease in the number of deaths.

    Any one of the above answers is reasonable and valid, and subject to the opinions and prejudices of those making the judgments.

    A “macho” officer might simply conclude #1 and recommend the cessation of the helmet-issue.

    Basic Training officers might conclude #2, and alter their training methodologies.

    Unit commanders might conclude #3, and exercise more caution in battlefield assignments

    Washington bureaucrats might conclude #4, and adjust their “acceptable losses” calculations

    Those unswayed by prejudicial opinion would study the matter further, take into consideration all factors, and correctly conclude #4.

    The correct answer is (4), but this example illustrates that raw data alone is insufficient to draw meaningful conclusions, but it is very easy to fall into the “correlation-causation” fallacy.

    • WTP said, on June 9, 2017 at 2:33 pm

      All of the above presume constants well beyond the control of the statisticians and realistically unfeasible to control for. Namely, German/enemy war tacticts, number and intensity if engagements, change in artillary munititions use by the enemy, and on down the line. This is the BS of staistics. By nature they are gathered from a dynamic world. Science requires all constants to be well controlled with only one variable changing. Thus true science consits of experiments and data that are reproduceable. This isn’t to say we can’t learn anything from statistics but the certainty with which such are used in society today is very irrational. Three kinds of lies. Lies. Damned lies. And statistics. Folly and fools know better, of course. Overeducated fools,

      • WTP said, on June 9, 2017 at 2:45 pm

        Meant to add also, specific to your example and one can argue re texas teenages but still similar, the gathering of statistics is a significant weak point. Especially in war where the absolute hell of inhumanity and chaos reigns, but even in social situations there are reporting concerns, accuracy issues, differences in defining and understanding terms. I have zero patience for reading Mike’s sophistry so I ask is there anywhere in here where he speaks of even the most basic statistical terms of the mean, median, and standard deviations?

        • DH said, on June 9, 2017 at 5:35 pm

          The WWI example is probably not the best one to use in terms of gathering and evaluating statistical data; I use it frequently to illustrate what I call “The Law of Unintended Result”. In this case, I cited it just to demonstrate how single data points can be interpreted with absolute certainty by people who, rather than apply any kind of critical thought to the matter, merely interpret the data to fit into their preconceived notions of what is true.

          Your point about mean & median is well taken – along with standard deviations. I’d throw in “Confidence Interval” as well, because that was a fairly significant factor in the conclusions (or lack thereof) in the Santelli publication I cited in my first post. Santelli points out that based on his statistics, abstinence, delayed onset of sexual behavior, and changes (reduction) in sexual behavior account for 53% of the reduction in teen pregnancies, while access to information and increased use of birth control accounts for about 45% – but he also cites a broad confidence interval so as to make those percentages subject to a significant deviation. Even so, I think that in a case like teenage pregnancy, the variations are likely to be so broad as to make any national or even state-wide statistics meaningless.

          There is no discussion of possible variation from the conclusion due to data collection or interpretation variables – it is a classic “With this, therefore because of this” fallacy.

          The point is that we can’t really be sure what the contributing factors might be, or how many might apply and to what degree with any kind of mathematical precision. We can, however, have a high confidence that it is probably no one single thing – and to take an overused liberal talking point and cite that as the single cause while directly or implicitly trashing an entire political or religious ideology is dishonest and unethical.

          The more educated the perpetrator of this nonsense, the more expert he may be in logic, in fallacies, and in critical thinking, the greater the degree of ethical corruption.

  7. WTP said, on June 9, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    The WWI example is probably not the best one to use in terms of gathering and evaluating statistical data;
    Just to be clear, I wasn’t picking on the WWI example to argue your points. I was trying to make a more “metadata” kind of point. Your example is perfectly valid as my using it as context for my more general point. Picking at statistics on such a small, discrete values as in this study and your WWI example is, for those trying to draw conclusions from such, is folly. Now if we were to see a very wide distribution of values and such it might be relevant, but now I’m talking about an entirely new hypothetical and will have totally upset the apple cart logically speaking.

    Unlike philosophers, I deal in chaos and the fuzzy logic regarding such and am held to bringing such to some level of objectivity every day. OK, almost every day. OK, like a couple times a month. But in between it’s all asses-and-elbows herding/honing the chaos.

    The more educated the perpetrator of this nonsense, the more expert he may be in logic, in fallacies, and in critical thinking, the greater the degree of ethical corruption.

    But that can’t be. He teaches ethics, see?

  8. Treble-Up said, on August 7, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    There are many causes of teen pregnancy, lack of education and access being two, but also contributing are minority status, religiosity, poverty, and living in the south. Rather than pointing fingers and blaming, why don’t liberals and conservatives meet half way. I suspect many are not ready for comprehensive sex-ed and have proposed to bridge the gap with “abstinence-plus-marital education” which teaches family planning in a marriage context and without mentioning the dreaded “A” word. See the free booklet at http://www.treble-up.com and send me your feedback (info@treble-up.com).

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