Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Teen Pregnancy and Abortion Rates Declining

According to new data released from the Center for Disease Control for the year 2010, birth rates for U.S. teenagers are at an all-time low.

The historically low rate of 34.3 births per 1,000 teen women represents a 9% drop from the prior year and a remarkable 44% drop since 1991.

If you're generally skeptical, as I am, the first question that comes to mind when you hear this good new is - maybe the number of births is declining because women are having more abortions? 

I did a little research, and I'm happy to report, that's not the case. An increase in aborted pregnancies is NOT the reason there are fewer teen births in the U.S. In fact, abortion rates among American women have been steadily declining for the last 30 years.

Check out this interactive chart which reflects the annual number of abortions per 1,000 women (aged 15-44) for every year since 1978.

To analyze trends in abortion rates at the state level, select a specific state from the drop-down menu on the chart. You can view an interactive map comparing current state-level abortion rates by accessing this link and clicking on Maps.

The indisputable statistical evidence that teens are having fewer babies and fewer abortions provides enough good news for Americans all across the political spectrum to be happy. The questions up for debate are: who gets the credit for these encouraging results, and more importantly, how do we make sure these trends continue?

The left-wing sex educationist crowd would have you believe that talking with kids openly and candidly about sex is the right thing to do. Teens will have sex, they say. Can't stop that. All we can do is make sure they know how to behave responsibly. Well, the sex education crowd just might be right. Since 1985, the number of teens who report using contraception in their initial pre-marital sexual encounters has risen from below 60% to higher than 80%. Effective contraception stops unwanted pregnancies.

The right-wing moralist folks, on the other hand, would argue you that the right approach is not teaching kids to use condoms, but instead teaching kids abstinence. Most socially conservative Americans believe the best way to reduce teen pregnancy is to make sure teens don't have sex. While not easy to accomplish, there is no doubt that the path of abstinence, when properly followed, will never yield an unwanted pregnancy. Though the exact source cannot be determined, some progress has been made in encouraging kids to refrain from sex, as the percentage of high schoolers who indicate they have had intercourse has declined from 54% in 1991 to 46% in 2009.

There are still others, those we'll call the MTV realists, who would make the case that kids are simply smarter and more savvy these days about the consequences of being sexually active. No one is likely to argue with the notion that kids are "growing up faster" in recent decades, and there may be something to the argument that programs like MTV's 16 and Pregnant are highlighting the harsh realities of teen pregnancy and helping teens make more responsible decisions about their sexual lives.

In America, issues related to the very private subject of sexuality, things like gay marriage and abortion rights, all too often become very public political footballs. Teenage sexuality is no exception.

As we celebrate the decreases in abortion and teen pregnancy rates, and simultaneously pump our fists and argue passionately over what led to these improved statistics, the logical answer is...all of the above.

While it's often more fun to argue in favor of our preferred singular solution to a complex problem, a thoughtful and comprehensive approach is more likely to yield the desired results. (That's not to say that complex problems can't be solved with simple solutions, but instead that the simple solution in this case, is a multi-pronged approach. I digress...)

The intelligent way forward is to accept that what we have done for the last twenty years seems to be working. We need to stay the course, which means:
  • Let's quit arguing against sex education in schools, and let's acknowledge that pop culture organizations like MTV sometimes speak to kids in meaningful ways.
  • Let's not belittle the teaching of abstinence as an option, and let's not scoff at those who attempt to instill a certain moral fiber in their kids. 
  • Let's make contraception responsibly available to teens, while making sure kids understand the potentially serious consequences of being sexually active. 
In the end, what matters most is that we continue to reduce the number of teenage girls who get pregnant. If we do that, we will reduce the number of unplanned children who are born into very difficult circumstances, and we'll continue to see a decline in the number of abortions. Who could argue against results like that?

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