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The Drop in Teen Pregnancy is a Mystery

Teen pregnancy rates have hit a record low in the US, according to new research. Access to birth control and better sex education have clearly contributed to the trend—but that's not the whole story.

by Grace Wyler
12 May 2014, 6:00am

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s some very good news: After two decades of steady decline, teen pregnancy rates have hit a record low in the US, plummeting in every state and across ethnic groups, according to new research from the Guttmacher Insitute. The study, released this week, found that just six percent of women between the ages of 15 and 19 got pregnant in 2010, which means that there were 57 pregnancies for every 1,000 teenage girls. That’s a stunning 51 percent drop from the peak rate in 1990, and a 15 percent decrease from 2008 alone.

Teen abortion and birth rates have similarly declined from their respective peaks, although the drop off has been less dramatic.

Image courtesy of the Guttmacher Institute 

“We’ve known that birth rates were falling, but this is something different – now we know that it’s because fewer teens are actually becoming pregnant in the first place,” said lead author Kathryn Kost, a Guttmacher researcher. “The takeaway is that it appears teens are taking control of their sexual and reproductive lives.”

“I think we’re probably seeing the wider impact of efforts to ensure teens can access the information and contraceptive services they need to prevent pregnancies,” Kost added. But she conceded that the report doesn’t offer much to explain the trend. “This is basically a statistical report to put on the table, and look at what we have,” she said. “Really the next step is asking why? What can we do to figure out what is causing these declines?”

It’s easy to see the numbers as proof that progressive sexual health policies, like expanding health care coverage for birth control and cutting off funding for abstinence-only education, are working – and that conservative opposition to said policies is just backwards paternalism and vagina fear-mongering. But while birth control and comprehensive sex ed obviously play a role in lowering the teen pregnancy rate, that’s not the whole story. A deeper look at the data on teen sexuality reveals a much more nuanced picture, raising big questions about what is actually behind the dramatic drop in teen pregnancies, births and abortions. Clearly some teenage girls have figured out a way to avoid getting pregnant. But what exactly it is that they are doing – and why – remains a mystery.

Of course, it’s not all good news. Despite the downward trends, the US still has more teen births than any other industrialised nation. According to the report, there were still some 614,000 teen pregnancies in 2010 – a huge number that doesn’t include 11,000 pregnancies among girls aged 14 and below. The study also found that while teen pregnancy declined nationally, progress from state to state has been uneven, and pregnancy rates among black and Hispanic teens remain twice as high as rates for white teens.

“One of the nation's great national success stories over the past two decades has been the truly stunning declines in teen pregnancy and childbearing,” said Bill Albert, the chief program officer for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies. “But when we talk about all of this good news, we do have to temper it a bit with a glass half-empty interpretation.”

The most obvious, albeit slightly surprising, explanation for the decline in pregnancy rates is that teens are actually having less sex than they used to. According to federal data, 57 percent of teen girls reported that they were virgins in 2010, up from 49 percent in 1995. That timeline closely corresponds to the heyday of abstinence-only sex ed, which started getting federal funding as part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and turned into a billion industry under the George W. Bush administration before the Obama administration slashed abstinence spending in 2009. Interestingly, CDC studies have found that since 2002, the number one reason most teens, male or female, give for not having had sex is that it is “against their religion or morals.” All of which suggests that telling kids they should wait to have sex – or alternatively, warning them that premarital sex will turn you into a prostitute and/or junkie, as the Las Vegas Police Department did at a “Choose Purity” event last weekend – might actually be working, at least for some teens.

“The Guttmacher report doesn’t really address the fact that there is an increase in the number of high-school students who are waiting to have sex,” said Valerie Huber, president of the National Abstinence Education Association. “Anyone who wants to have an honest dialogue about this has to acknowledge the fact that in the midst of a highly sexualised cultures, teens are holding off on having sex.”

Abstinence-only or otherwise, sex ed is horrifying, so it’s not totally surprising that it has scared kids out of having sex. Add to that the Teen Mom tabloid horror show and crying-toddler PSAs, and it’s safe to say teen girls are getting the message that having a baby is really fucking terrible.

But while the overall teen pregnancy rate includes a substantial number of young women who have never had intercourse, the Guttmacher report also found that pregnancy has also declined among teens who are having sex, dropping 43 percent from its 1990 peak to a rate of about 127 pregnancies per 1,000 women. It’s worth noting, too, that most girls haven’t had any sex education by the time they lose their virginity, according to a recent CDC report, which calls the mistiming a “missed opportunity to introduce medically accurate information on abstinence and effective contraceptive use.”

It is true that kids are using contraception way more than they did back in the days before AIDS and the Moral Majority, when bras were optional and everyone was having cowboy sex. But just because teen pregnancy rates are falling doesn’t mean that teens are practicing safe sex. About half of new STD infections in the US are contracted by people under age 25, and girls ages 15-19 have the largest number of reported cases of gonorrhea and chlamydia, according to the most recent CDC statistics. Moreover, data shows that rates of contraception use among teens didn’t change much between 2002 and 2010, although teen pregnancy rates fell by about 18 percent during that period.

“There seems to be an unsolvable mystery here,” said Bill Albert. “Teen sex has gone down, but it has levelled off, contraceptive use continues to creep up a little bit. But pregnancy rates have fallen off the charts. And yet the STD rates remain quite high.”

So what exactly is it that teen girls are doing to avoid getting knocked up? Maybe it’s as simple as taking Plan B, which wasn’t available at pharmacies until 2006 (and even then, only with a prescription for women under age 17.) Or maybe teen girls are just telling their boyfriends to pull the fuck out. Maybe it’s some combination of factors, and teen girl magic. Whatever it is, finding the answer could unlock the secret to helping the too-high number of teen girls that are still getting pregnant.

“As with all things, the more targeted you can get, the narrower you can refine the message, the more successful you can be,” said Albert. “The wrong message to take from the new data is that we can pack up our tents and go home. It's not like we found a vaccination.” 

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