TEEN SEX: Births, Pregnancy, and Abortion Rates Drop Significantly
Teen births continued a six-year slide that began in the early 1990s, dropping to a record low in 1997 -- the "lowest point since the government began keeping records in 1909" -- according to data released today by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (Stolberg, New York Times, 4/29). Overall, the teen birth rate declined 16% from 1991 to 1997, to 52.3 births per 1,000 teen girls, with every state reporting steep declines (Painter, USA Today, 4/29). Ranking 14th, California's teen birth rate "dropped by 15% from 1992 to 1996, but was still 17% higher than it had been in the mid-1980s," the AP/San Diego Union Tribune reports. The state's ranking may be due in part to the cultural norms inherent in California's immigrant population, which hold that "it is more acceptable for teens to be married or to have children outside marriage" (Meckler/Duerksen, 4/29). The greatest decline in teen births, the HHS study found, occurred among Puerto Rican and non-Hispanic black teens, for whom the rate was down about 25% during the study period. "This sustained national improvement is evidence that innovative programs to reach teenagers with information and support to make responsible choices are working," said HHS Secretary Donna Shalala. The out- of-wedlock birth rate declined for the third year in a row in 1997 to 44 births per 1,000 unmarried women, down 2% from 1996 (HHS release, 4/29). Vice President Al Gore touted the declining teen pregnancy rate, saying, "We have made real progress -- and must do more -- to encourage more young people to delay parenthood until they are truly ready to live up to its important responsibilities" (White House release, 4/29).
More Good News
A study released by the Alan Guttmacher Institute indicates that the 1996 pregnancy, birth and abortion rates among U.S. teens were also on the downswing. Nationwide, the teen pregnancy rate dropped 4% between 1995 and 1996 for women ages 15-19, from 101.1 pregnancies per 1,000 to 97.3, which represents a 17% drop since its peak in 1990. California was among states reporting the highest teen pregnancy rate -- coming in second after Nevada -- with 113 to 140 pregnancies per 1,000 women ages 15-19. With regard to abortion, California reported a rate of 45-53 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-19. According to the report, black women ages 15-19 experienced an especially sharp 20% drop in the pregnancy rate between 1990 and 1996, while white teenagers saw a 16% drop; the rate for Hispanic teenagers "increased between 1990 and 1992, but then fell 6% by 1996." The teenage birth rate similarly declined 4% between 1995 and 1996, and the abortion rate fell 3% over the same period. The AGI study noted that the continued decline in abortions represents a 31% slide since 1986, to 29.2 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. At the same time, the report found, "the proportion of teenage pregnancies ending in abortion has fallen from 46% to 35% -- a decline of 24%" ("Teen Pregnancy: Overall Trends and State-by-State Information," AGI, April 1999).
Where Credit is Due
Dr. Nancy Bowen, director of child and maternal health for San Diego County said that "[w]hen teens have better things to do, fewer will get pregnant." She added, "You're going to be more careful about what you're doing if you've got something to look forward to," and better education and employment opportunities weigh in heavily when it comes to motivating teens not to get pregnant. But Anna Ramirez, chief of the California Office of Family Planning said the state "can claim some of the credit because it has started several programs in the past four years aimed at preventing unwanted pregnancies." The state spends $50 million a year on a pregnancy prevention program, "Partnership for Responsible Parenting," in addition to a "$122 million program that began in 1997" that "helps make birth control available for people who cannot afford it but do not qualify for other aid," the Union-Tribune reports. The private sector has also gotten involved in pregnancy prevention, such as the California Wellness Foundation's $60 million "Get Real About Teen Pregnancy" program (4/29). The AGI study found steep decreases in the teenage pregnancy rate among sexually experienced teens accounted for most of the overall drop in the nationwide rate. The decline stems from "slight increases in the proportion of sexually active teenagers using a contraceptive method; teenagers' using highly effective, long-acting methods; and modest reductions in failure rates among those using condoms and oral contraceptives." Jacqueline Darroch, the institute's vice president for research, said, "Many groups want to take credit for the drop in teenage pregnancy, but the credit truly goes to the teenagers. About 20% of the decrease since the late 1980s is because of decreased sexual activity, and 80% of the decrease is because of more effective contraceptive practice -- the methods teenagers are choosing to use and how well they are using them" (AGI release, 4/29). Kris Kim, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of New York, applauded teens' efforts, pointing to AIDS awareness as a likely explanation. "Teens began to use more condoms during and after the AIDS scare and continue to rely on condoms," she said (Rein/Siemaszko, New York Daily News, 4/29). Beth Frederick of AGI agreed that the consequences and early exposure to prevention messages play a role, saying, "You have to remember that these kids are the first generation to have been exposed to sex education messages for a very long time now. They have been hearing about AIDS, condoms, abstinence and how it is bad to have a baby when you are not ready, from grade school" (McLeod, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/29).