Fewer teenagers are getting pregnant, having babies or seeking abortions, according to a new national report that says rates of all three are at historic lows.
The report by the Guttmacher Institute looks at 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available. It says that there were 614,000 pregnancies among teenage females 15-19, or 57.4 per 1,000. That's a 51 percent drop from the 1990 peak and a 15 percent decline from 2008.
The teen birthrate peaked in 1991 and has dropped 44 percent since that peak, from 61.8 births per 1,000 to 34.4.
Abortions have fallen most of all, down 66 percent from the 1988 peak of 43.5 per 1,000 to 2010's 14.7 per 1,000.
This means that clearly, the birthrate is not down just because more teens are having abortions, said Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
"We do know that men and women of goodwill in this country disagree passionately about abortion," said Albert. "But all those concerned about abortion should be applauding this news. Fewer teens are getting pregnant in the first place."
"Both births and abortions are going down," said Kathryn Kost, a Guttmacher senior research associate who co-wrote the report.
Differing views, mutual celebration
Groups and individuals with very different perspectives on the issues are celebrating the findings, although they credit different factors for the result.
Kost believes the needle moved because of continuing focus on sex education programs and access to contraceptive services for teens. Teens are more effectively using contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies, she said.
Albert believes teens are making better choices across a spectrum. "I think we adults are simply reluctant to give credit where credit is due. Teenagers themselves are clearly making better decisions."
When adults are surveyed, almost half say incorrectly they believe teen pregnancies are on the rise. They "think teen culture and culture in general are heading south and teenagers are leading the charge. They are unwilling to believe, particularly when it comes to sex, that teenagers are making better decisions," Albert said. It's a combination of less sex and better contraception, he added.
"It's encouraging, but not necessarily surprising," Randall K. O'Bannon, director of education and research for the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund, told the Deseret News. "The fact that there are still babies that die from abortion in the United States, whether from teens or from older people — that's bad. We don't want any innocent lives to die. The fact that there are fewer of them is obviously good news."
O'Bannon said the fact that abortion rates have dropped more than teen birthrates or teen pregnancy rates is an "indication something is happening in behaviors and attitudes specifically toward abortion."
O'Bannon referred to a blog on the topic, in which he also credited laws that mandate parental involvement, waiting periods and informed consent, as well as crisis pregnancy centers and technologies like ultrasound that show "the humanity of the unborn" for reducing the number of abortions among teens.
Consequences of teen pregnancy
The Guttmacher analysis also said teens are waiting longer to have sex than in the recent past. "In 2006-2008, some 11 percent of never-married females aged 15-19 and 14 percent of never-married males in that age group had had sex before age 15, compared with 19 percent and 21 percent respectively in 1995."
On average, it said, young people have sex for the first time around age 17, but don't marry until their mid-20s, placing themselves at risk for unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases for "nearly a decade or longer."
Of those teens who become pregnant, "at the most basic level, you have to remember that almost all of these are unintended pregnancies," Kost said. "And particularly for young women or teens who do not want to become pregnant, we don't want them to become pregnant either. They are not ready to become mothers; they are young women at the very beginnings of adulthood."
For those who did become pregnant, the lion's share (69 percent) were in the 18-19 age range. While more teens in that age category than in others reported having sex, fewer became pregnant than in the past, probably because of contraceptive use, the report said.
"In this day and age, this economy, this challenging 21st century environment, do we think it's a good idea for a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old to start a family? Teens themselves are saying they are not planning to get pregnant and don't want to," Albert said.
There are many pure-sciences reasons teen pregnancy is bad, he said, and social well-being ones, too. Of young women who get pregnant, only about four in 10 finish high school, let alone go to college. They may suffer health consequences, both for mom and baby.
The National Campaign and other groups have compiled lists of challenges: Children of teen moms may not perform as well in school and may be at greater risk for abuse and neglect. Sons of teen moms are more apt to end up in prison, while the teen daughters are more likely to become teen mothers themselves. Teen moms are more likely to end up on welfare.
"In some cases, they are not ready to begin that lifelong challenge of being a parent," said Albert. "There are countless teen mothers past and present who have worked heroically and have stable families and successful lives. But anyone sober about this realizes as a general matter that 16, 17, 18 is not the right time."
Teen pregnancy rates dropped across all racial and ethnic categories, but there were some big differences. Black and Hispanic teens were both twice as likely to become pregnant as non-Hispanic white teens.
"It continues to reflect the disparities we see in all health outcomes," Kost said. "We still have a way to go."
There are also big differences depending on where a teen lived. The highest rates of teen pregnancy were in New Mexico (80 per 1,000), Mississippi (76), Texas (73), Arkansas (73), Louisiana (69) and Oklahoma (69).
The lowest rates were in New Hampshire (28 per 1,000), Vermont (32), Minnesota (36), Massachusetts (37), and Maine (37). "The authors suggest that the demographic characteristics of states' populations, the availability of comprehensive sex education, knowledge about and availability of contraceptive services and cultural attitudes toward sexual behavior and early childbearing likely play a role in these variations," the Guttmacher Institute said in release about the report.
Albert also pointed out that despite progress, the rates in America are "still far, far higher than in comparable countries. It's still the case that nearly three in 10 are pregnant by age 20," with more work to do to bring those numbers down.