"Teenage Birth Rates Continue to Drop." When I read this headline last week, I pumped my fist in the air and let out a big cheer that could be heard around the neighborhood, if only my house didn’t have pretty thick walls.
Why? Because this is most rewarding news for anyone concerned with the serious problems of teenage pregnancies and births, which have bedeviled the United States for decades.
The good news is a long time coming: since 1946, to be exact. But, come it finally did this past week, when U.S. government researchers announced that “fewer teenagers gave birth in 2010 than in any other year since 1946,”adding, “there is good evidence that today’s teenagers are initiating sex later and using birth control more consistently than previous generations did.”
These results prove that prevention education is the key. They also indicate that school–based comprehensive sex education that includes honest, accurate information about abstinence and contraception trumps abstinence-only education programs that teach only the negatives about contraceptive methods.
The report from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that “birth rates among young women ages 15 to 19 fell in all but three states (West Virginia, Montana, and North Dakota) and in all racial, ethnic, and age groups. For those who relish statistics, “from 2009 to 2010, the rate of teenage births fell by 9 percent to 34.9 per thousand, the lowest rate ever reported in 65 years for which data is available.” [link to: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr051.pdf]
The teen birth rate in New Jersey fell. Ours is among the states where the decline decreased significantly (8–19 percent). The challenge of course will be to keep the rates falling in all states in subsequent years.
In the meantime, we as a society should be pleased as punch about this news and congratulate the wide array of individuals working to further comprehensive sexuality education—from parents and health educators to organizations publishing award-winning sex education sites. All have worked hard over the decades to bring down these rates.
Yet we still see supporters of abstinence-only education claiming that its approach should get the lion’s share of the credit. But the proof is in the pudding: It is teens’ actual use of contraception that made the significant difference in this success story.
“In the ‘90s, it was the big increase in condom use. Most recently, it looks like an increase in the use of oral contraceptives, the patch, and perhaps even the IUD,” says Dr. John Santelli, professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University.
The Guttmacher Institute, the national sexual and reproductive health research and policy organization, back up Dr. Santelli’s analysis. It points out that “teenagers’ use of dual contraception methods, generally condoms together with hormonal contraception, rose to 23 percent from 16 percent.
Analysts of the recent decline found that teen birth rates are still highest in the South and Southwest—Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, where schools favor the abstinence-only approach—and lowest in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where schools offer students a more balanced, comprehensive approach that includes instruction on abstinence, but also medically accurate information about contraception.