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New study shows greater access to contraception boosts graduation rates

Posted at 1:36 PM, Jun 01, 2021

Anne Kear, 84, is revolutionary in her tiny town in rural Ohio. Before becoming a minister, she was a high school teacher.

“Well, I taught till ‘67 and then I got pregnant," Kear said. "And you could not be pregnant in the classroom as a teacher, so I had to resign. There was no pregnancy leave in 1960s.”

She says pregnancy was even more complicated if the mother was a high school student.

“Unless they had parents that were more open and got them contraceptives, there was no way to get them," Kear said.

When teenagers got pregnant in her rural town back in the 60s, Kear says they were forced out of school.

“It was a given. A girl got pregnant, she was done with school. That was so unfair because the boy that got her pregnant may have been still in school, but that didn't matter," Kear stated.

Kear was the first woman to join the school board. With unanimous support, she was able to pass a motion that allowed pregnant teens to stay in school.

“How would you have felt if your daughter had to quit high school and never finished it?" Kear said. "And they just looked at me like, ‘I never thought of that.' They never thought of it.”

Fifty years later, a lot has changed about society.

“Society has been more accepting,” Kear said.

However, access to birth control varies from state to state and continues to be a hot topic for policymakers. That’s why an assistant professor of sociology, Amanda Jean Stevenson, at the University of Colorado Boulder wanted to find out if contraception makes women's lives better.

She specifically wanted to see if contraception impacts high school graduation rates. She studied the Colorado Family Planning Initiative (CFPI), which she says is the largest family-planning policy experiment ever conducted in the United States. Anybody who showed up could get any method of contraception they wanted.

“So, because Title 10 is so chronically underfunded, people who show up at Title 10 clinics often have to take methods that are less expensive because the clinic doesn't have enough money to give them whatever method that they want," Stevenson said. "But during this experiment in Colorado, anybody who showed up at any Title 10 clinic could get whatever method they wanted. So, what we found was that 14 percent fewer young women left high school without a diploma because of CFPI."

Stevenson says her research team was able to confirm a causal relationship between access to birth control and high school graduation rates by comparing Colorado to other states in similar situations.

"We really, really, really wanted to make absolutely certain that this was a causal relationship," Stevenson said. "We weren't going to go ahead and make a claim like this. Nobody's made this claim, right? There's a reason because it's a big claim to make.”

Stevenson says she hopes this study will help policymakers focus on whether access to contraception improves people's outcomes instead of on whether having babies impacts people's outcomes.

“Some young women who have babies as teenagers successfully complete high school and college and go onto graduate school like having a baby when you’re a teenager is not some death sentence to your life course,” Stevenson said.

Kear says it’s been great for her to see the changes schools have made to support teen pregnancies in the past 50 years. She says she hopes girls will do everything they can to finish high school.

“It's just so important for any teenager to least get a high school diploma," Kear said. "It's very hard to get jobs if you don't have one.”