"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.
If the formula for lowering teen birth rates is education plus contraception, it needs to be supported worldwide. I came to this conclusion after a two-week trip to Israel and Jordan, where I observed firsthand the increasing family size among some populations groups.
While in the Middle East, I became aware of the rising population rates within two distinct groups: the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the Palestinian Arab population in in the West Bank and in Jordan. Although both view having many children as an expression of their religious beliefs, and do not endorse artificial contraception, both groups seem, to this outsider, to be involved in a race to beat each other by out-populating the other.
In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish adults that I saw walking through Jerusalem were more often than not trailed by a lengthy line of children. Upon return, I found an article that reported that this community’s “fertility rate” is “hovering at more than three times that of other Israel Jews.” The experts quoted projected that by 2034, “about one in five Israelis will be ultra-Orthodox,” which means the population will continue to increase, putting stress on living conditions, scarce resources, and political decisions affecting some of the secular aspects of Israeli society.
I only have a personal story to back up my estimations of increasing population rates among Palestinian Arabs. When in Petra, Jordan, I stopped to look at a little table arrayed with jewelry and other trinkets for sale by a Palestinian Arab young woman. She wore a long, brown neck-to-toe robe and a headscarf and held an adorable, rosy-cheeked baby boy in her arms.
Perhaps the reporter in me prompted me to ask our guide to ask the smiling young woman the age of her baby and at what age she had married. Both her answers surprised me: She had married at age 13, and, now, at 19, had six children. Our guide told us that most young Bedouin Arab women marry early, have little education and marry young men who do not believe in using contraception.
Which brings me to Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In a recent speech in Berlin, she called for “universal access to birth control that women want in developed and developing countries.” Gates, who is Catholic, believes such access could save “hundreds of thousands of lives annually and that “one of the simplest and most transformational things we can do is give everybody access to birth control.”
Perhaps I am naïve to think that there are young women in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and other developing nations of the world who, like their U.S. counterparts, are connected by their desire for access to contraception, so they can plan their families and give their children better, stronger, and more secure lives. Before I left for my trip to the Middle East, I read that modern Orthodox high schools in Israel had instituted sex education for both boys and girls (who attend school separately). The journey of a thousand miles, goes an old Chinese proverb, does begin with a single step.
Education and contraception: perfect together.
It is a vision we can make a reality.