The teen birth rate in the U.S. is at a record low, dropping below 25 births per 1,000 teen females for the first time since the government began collecting consistent data on births to teens ages 15-19, according to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics.
NonWhite teens have led the way in declining birth rates in recent years. Since the most recent peak in 2007, the birth rate among all teens has dropped by 42%. The declines among Hispanic (50%), and Black (44%) teens have outpaced this national average, while the decline among White teens (36%) has been somewhat more modest.
Although the teen birth rates among Blacks and Hispanics have fallen faster than among Whites, the racial disparity in teen childbearing remains wide. Hispanic and Black teens ages 15-19 had birth rates at least twice as high as the rate among White teens in 2014. Asians and Pacific Islanders had the lowest teen birth rate – less than half the rate among Whites.
The peak for teen births was 96.3 per 1,000 in 1957, in the midst of the Baby Boom, after having risen dramatically following the end of World War II. But the composition of teen mothers has changed drastically since then. Back in 1960, most teen mothers were married – an estimated 15% of births to mothers ages 15-19 were to unmarried teens. Today, it has flipped: 89% of births are to unmarried mothers in that age group.
The teen birth rate has been on a steep decline since the early 1990s, and that trend accelerated during the recession of 2007-09 and the years following, reversing a brief uptick that began in 2006.
It’s worth noting that birth rate figures only include live births, and do not account for miscarriages, stillbirths or abortions. In 2009, the estimated pregnancy rate for teens was 65.3 pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15-19. But that’s a big decline from a peak reached in 1990.
The abortion rate among females ages 15-19 has also fallen over roughly the same time period – from 43.5 per 1,000 female teens in 1988 to 16.3 in 2009. Of the roughly 700,000 pregnancies among teens in 2009, about 58% are estimated to have ended in live births, 25% in abortions and 17% in miscarriages or stillbirths.
EXPLAINING THE DECLINE
What is behind the downward trend in teen pregnancy rates? On one level, the answer is simple: Pregnancy rates have fallen either because teens are having less sex in the first place or because more teens who are sexually active are using contraceptives and using them more effectively. Researchers have analyzed the role of both over the last several decades, and they have concluded that the declines can primarily—although not exclusively—be attributed to improvements in teens’ contraceptive use.
BEHIND THE BEHAVIOR
The recent trends in sexual experience and contraceptive use are clear enough, but understanding what is driving these behaviors is more of a challenge. Advocates often credit education programs for the positive trends. The quality and quantity of evaluation research have improved dramatically over the last decade, and there is now clear evidence that comprehensive sex education programs can change the behaviors that put young people at risk of pregnancy.
While these educational programs have been shown to delay sexual debut, reduce frequency of sex and number of partners, increase condom or contraceptive use, or reduce sexual risk-taking, programs that exclusively promote abstinence outside of marriage have been proven ineffective at stopping or even delaying sex.
The AIDS Crisis: Experts point to the AIDS crisis in America and the impact of AIDS education programs over the past several decades in changing perceptions about condoms and increasing condom use. In the early 1990s, a handful of highly visible people living with HIV helped raise public awareness of HIV, and the need for public education to address the epidemic.
Childbearing Norms: While the median age at first sex has changed little over time, American women are getting married later and putting off having children. Many experts believe that adolescents may be mirroring what they see in their own families and their friends’ families, and waiting until later to have children.
The Media: The Internet has become an important source for health information, including information about sex and birth control, and many Web sites also allow young people to ask questions that they might otherwise feel uncomfortable broaching in class or with friends and family members.
More traditional media sources, such as television and magazines, are also important sources of information. For example, there is evidence that the reality television programs “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” may have influenced teen birthrates in recent years.
Medical Recommendations: Medical practice have made it easier for adolescents to start and continue using hormonal birth control methods. In the early 2000s, various medical organizations updated their clinical recommendations to enable teens and young women to access hormonal contraceptives more quickly and easily without a pelvic exam or Pap test.
Policy Implications: Across the nation, sex education policy is far from a settled issue, but the country has moved beyond the abstinence-only programs promoted exclusively during the Bush administration. During that period, federal and state governments spent well over $1.5 billion on promoting abstinence to teens. While there is still a lot of support for abstinence-only education, in 2014, at the request of the Obama administration, Congress provided roughly $185 million for medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education programs.
Additionally, adolescents who are sexually active need easy access to contraceptive services. Expansions in public and private health insurance under the Children Health Insurance Program implemented in 1997, as well as the Affordable Care Act, mean that more teens are gaining coverage for contraceptive services.
Credit Youth: At the end of the day, the credit for the declines in teen pregnancy goes to adolescents themselves, who are making an effort to prevent unintended pregnancy.