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1 in 200 mothers reports a "virgin" birth, study finds

Roughly one out of every 200 American women claim to have become pregnant as virgins, according to a recently published study. But scholars think that far from Bethlehem, something other than a miracle is afoot.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tracked how women answered questions on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They found that a small fraction of women – 0.5% – reported getting pregnant before they started having sex.

Women with “virgin pregnancy” were twice as likely as other pregnant women to have signed a chastity pledge, with more than 30% reporting they had done so. Their parents, in turn, were more likely to say they had trouble discussing sex or birth control with their children, the survey showed.

Did the women really think they became pregnant as virgins? It isn’t clear. Women were asked when they started having sex and when they got pregnant – and might have misremembered one date or the other, said UNC-Chapel Hill professor Amy H. Herring, one of the authors of the study.

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“They might also want to put their best foot forward. Maybe they don’t want to admit it,” Herring said. “Anytime you’re after very sensitive data like this, you have to be very careful.”

It could also be possible that some women misunderstood the definition of sexual intercourse, even though the question was worded clearly, Herring and her fellow researchers wrote. An earlier study in Canada found that a small fraction of college students did not consider vaginal intercourse with an orgasm as “having sex,” they pointed out.

Besides “virgin pregnancy,” the study also detected hundreds of “born again virgins” who said in the first round of the survey that they had lost their virginity, yet later indicated they were virgins. The survey included more than 7,800 women who were surveyed in 1995 and again in 2008-2009.

Herring said the study, part of the offbeat and humorous offerings in the annual Christmas issue of the BMJ journal, shows that researchers should be cautious about how people answer sensitive surveys – especially when there’s no way to check whether they’re fibbing.

“If I ask you what you ate yesterday, I don’t know if you really ate a scoop of ice cream instead of a pint,” Herring said. “But we have a pretty good idea of whether virgin pregnancy is truly happening.”

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