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Women and teen girls participating in a study that provided free birth control did not take up riskier sexual practices as a result, contrary to fears among some social conservatives, a new study shows.

The participants were less likely to have sex with more than one man after the program began. And though they did have sex a bit more often, they were no more likely to be diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases, according the report published online Thursday in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

The same study, involving 9,256 girls and women in the St. Louis area, previously showed the free birth control program dramatically reduced abortions and unintended pregnancies.

The latest findings should dispel "the idea that the only thing standing between women and promiscuity is a fear of pregnancy," says project director Gina Secura, a researcher at Washington University.

The findings come as debate continues over the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that insurers cover the full cost of birth control — making everything from birth control pills to intrauterine devices free for consumers. Some religious non-profit organizations and business owners are fighting the mandate in court, saying they should not have to provide coverage that violates their religious beliefs.

The study addresses related concerns, from social conservatives who have speculated that widespread free birth control would encourage sexual promiscuity. The paper specifically mentions such criticisms from the non-profit Family Research Council.

Arina Grossu, director of the council's Center for Human Dignity, says she finds the new study unconvincing and believes more contraception does lead to more risky sex. "Contraception gives women a false sense of safety" from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, she says. "Women think they are completely protected, and they are not."

For the new analysis, researchers looked at data on 7,751 participants ages 14 to 45 who completed follow-up surveys. All were either sexually active with men or planning to become active when the study began. Among those without partners at the start, just 5% were virgins.

Among the results 12 months after participants got free birth control medications or devices:

• 3.3% reported more than one partner the previous month, down from 5.2% at the beginning of the study.

• 16% increased their numbers of partners — most often from zero to one.

• The mean number of times women had vaginal intercourse in a month was six, up from four.

• Rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia were the same among women who increased their sexual frequency and those who did not.

• 46% who were virgins at the beginning of the study were still virgins, despite their earlier intentions to start having sex.

"It's not as if getting birth control opened the floodgates" on sexual activity, Secura says.

But Grossu says the study does not show whether results differed between new and previous contraceptive users and does not include any comparisons with non-participants, a so-called control group. She also notes that the women were surveyed by phone, rather than in the privacy of a clinic, possibly leading to less truthful responses — a limitation the researchers also note in their paper.

The researchers also note that about 16% of project participants did not take the follow-up surveys, and that it's possible those women were a higher-risk group than those who did take the surveys.

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