My Beautiful Wickedness

US Teen Pregnancy, by the numbers
September 2, 2008, 9:30 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

According to the Center for Disease Control (the organization that compiles US health stats), about one-third of US girls under the age of 20 get pregnant each year — around 750,000 of them. 80% of those pregnancies are unintended. Nearly half a million babies are born to teen mothers every year. Teen mothers have, on the whole, worse prenatal care and poorer birth outcomes than older US women.

Our nation has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate among all industrialized nations. In 2004, our failure to curb teen pregnancy cost United States taxpayers $9.1 billion dollars in direct costs (medical care, welfare) and untold billions in lost productivity — the presumed contributions to the economy those girls might have made if not disrupting their education and heading for low-wage jobs to make ends meet and so forth.

Teenagers have sex. Devout teenagers, irreverent teens, dorks of all shapes and sizes, daddy’s little girl…it happens. US teens have procreative sex for the first time, on average, at 16. Globally as well as nationally, more kids are having sex younger than they did a generation ago and girls, overall, are sexually active earlier than boys. Denying that it is happening isn’t working. Condemning sex before marriage (or, more charitably, basing a public health policy on the premise that intimacy is a serious business and thrives between two committed life-partners) isn’t working, or rather, isn’t working well.

Where’s the evidence for that? Glad you asked. According to a 2007 study published in the
American Journal for Public Health that seeks to explain the decline in teen pregnancy rates between 2000-2005, 77% of the decline in teen pregnancy rates among U.S. teens aged 15–17 years was because teens had increased their use of contraception and 23% of the decline was because teens were having less sex. Nearly all of the decline in teen pregnancy rates in older girls (18-19) came from contraceptive use. So, while it’s incorrect to say abstinence-only isn’t working (it works 23% of the time), it’s correct to say that it’s dramatically less effective than education that frankly discusses contraception and its use and makes contraception available to high school teens, especially before they become sexually active. (The article in question is Santelli JS, Lindberg LD, Finer LB, Singh S. Explaining recent declines in adolescent pregnancy in the United States: the contributions of abstinence and improved contraceptive use. American Journal of Public Health 2007;97(1):150–156. It uses data from 2000-2005. The last few years, our nation’s pregnancy rates are not declining, but modestly increasing.)

What would an effective public policy look like that would a) prevent unplanned teen pregnancies before they happen and b) better support young women who choose become mothers? Whatever it is, I’m betting it would cost less than $9 BILLION dollars.


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