Each new year brings a new low in the rate of teen pregnancy in the US. One might think that religious conservatives would be cheering this healthy trend, but they never mention it.
The numbers look like a victory for the religious right until you consider the longer trend and the reasons behind the decline. Teen pregnancy didn’t peak during the dirty years of the sexual revolution. The great age of the teen mom was the 1950’s.
It turns out that teen pregnancy has been in fairly steady decline since its towering peak in 1957. The half-century long declines seem tied to the growth in women’s power over their own lives, not exactly the central focus of the religious right. You won’t hear fundamentalists trumpeting this victory because it isn’t a victory. It is a defeat.
Teenagers are delaying sexual activity more than in the recent past, but most of the decline comes from increased education about sexuality and more consistent use of contraceptives. That’s not exactly a win for fundamentalists. By the same token, the long term decline in abortion rates and teen births, which should cheer religious conservatives, comes with an accompanying rise in women’s choices over their own bodies. This is not the kind of “victory” that Jerry Falwell had in mind.
And that’s one of the central ironies of the culture wars. Our culture is vastly more socially conservative by honest measures than it was in the seventies, but not in the ways that really mattered to the fundamentalists. They wanted to get there through authoritarian means that would limit choices and shore up religious values. Instead, we got there through libertarian means; education, choices and freedom.
People, especially young people, are making smarter choices about sex, drugs, education, and other personal matters than ever before. That’s not a victory for fundamentalists because their goals were never related to outcomes. Their objective was to limit choices. That’s why the “pro-life” movement is just as enthusiastic about blocking sex education and contraception access as they are about picketing abortion clinics. There is nothing pro-life about their movement or their motives.
The steep long-term declines in teen pregnancy, teen birth, and abortion are not going to be celebrated by religious fundamentalists because those were never their core objectives. The expansion of choices, especially for women, is a defeat for the religious right even as it improves quality of life for everyone.