The Trump administration is funding teen pregnancy prevention research that will include studies on abstinence as well as some assessment about why the rate of pregnancies among teens has dropped while the spread of some sexually transmitted diseases has increased.
The projects, from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and the Administration for Children and Families, will provide $10 million for Mathematica Policy Research and RTI International, which are nonpartisan research firms. The firms will conduct research on questions such as how delaying sex can affect a teen economically, how social media can help influence teen decision-making, and how teens who have engaged in "risky behaviors" can make "healthier choices in the future."
The funds were already set aside within various agencies, including the Office of Adolescent Health, said Trump administration officials, who agreed to speak without name attribution.
Research also will be conducted on "sexual risk avoidance," according to a statement. The term has been used by Valerie Huber, chief of staff for the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary, who used to run an association called Ascend that advocates for abstinence education. Huber has pushed back on the "abstinence only" terminology and instead "sexual risk avoidance."
“I bristle at the terminology ‘abstinence only,’ because our programs are so holistic," she said in an interview in Focus on the Family's Citizen Magazine when speaking about Ascend. "They contextualize a whole battery of different topics that surround a young person’s decision whether to have sex or not. Rather than someone telling a young person, ‘Do this, don’t do that,’ it’s casting a vision for a young person’s future.”
Teen pregnancy and childbirth have reached record lows in recent years, and teens are delaying sex, federal data show. More extensive evidence on teen behavior has shown that teens drink, smoke, and use drugs less than their parents' generation did.
Trump administration health officials said in a phone call that they are hoping to build on those outcomes.
"What are some things predictive of when they become active early whether or not they use contraception? Does this go beyond teen pregnancy or are there other factors at play?" a health official said in a phone call with the Washington Examiner.
They also noted that a recent CDC report found that cases of sexually transmitted diseases among all age groups have reached "record highs." People between the ages of 15 and 24 accounted for the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in almost two-thirds of all reported cases, according to a CDC analysis of 2014 data.
Sex education advocates who push for teaching teens about contraception use say the surge is attributable to abstinence-only education in schools, and they also blame budget cuts to local health programs. One study in JAMA Pediatrics suggested that teenage girls who have intrauterine devices, which are an effective form of long-term contraception being used by more women, are less likely to also use condoms when they have sex than someone who is taking a birth control pill.
The officials said they hoped the findings would have an effect on policy. It would affect programs such as those aimed at reducing unintended pregnancies in teens and in improving health, they said.
The health officials on the call acknowledged that some of the positions they hold might not be "politically correct." Their goal, they said, was to encourage teens to go in the direction of first "getting a degree, getting married and then having a child."
Groups such as Planned Parenthood have raised alarms about some officials running the Trump administration's health agencies, calling them "anti-science, anti-women’s health extremists." The Department of Health and Human Services this year slashed $213.6 million in federal grants to 81 organizations that work to reduce teen pregnancy rates. Last year, Huber called for normalizing sexual delay more than normalizing teen sex, even if teens are using contraception.