Positive peer influence and better decisions are among the key factors in why fewer teens are giving birth, having abortions or getting pregnant in the first place.
That's the "screaming headline," according to Bill Albert, spokesman for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a national group based in Washington, D.C. "The credit goes to the teens themselves, who are clearly making better choices. Hyperbole aside, the progress the nation has made in reducing teen pregnancy and childbearing is surely one of the nation's great success stories in the past two decades."
He noted the teen birthrate has fallen 52 percent over the last 21 years to its lowest point. "Drops in both pregnancy rates and abortion rates are part of that story."
National health officials last week released data showing that American fertility rates, which had been dropping quickly in recent years, seem to have leveled off, reaching a low of 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age — deemed to be 15 to 44 years. Birthrates were down across a number of age groups, with the exception of women in their 30s and early 40s, where rates rose slightly. Among teens, the drop was 6 percent between 2011 and 2012.
While the numbers presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics noted a very small drop in the birthrate, compared to much deeper declines during the course of the recession. That flattening of the birthrate is being viewed as a sign that an uptick in births may be likely in the future.
The national fertility rate in 2012 appears nearly flat at 1.88 children per woman over her lifetime, compared to 1.89 the previous year. Both numbers are below the 2.1 "replacement" rate that would signal stable population. That below-replacement level has been seen elsewhere, including Japan and Europe.
Surveys say less sex
While contraception is clearly responsible for some of the decrease, said Albert, surveys of teens indicate that fewer teens are sexually active. Both the National Survey of Family Growth and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey got the same responses. Those aren't perfect, Albert said, but they are designed to encourage youths to answer honestly.
"If they're lying, they are lying relatively consistently. The teen birthrate is something we can measure. We know if a baby is born or not. So one or two things are happening: They're not having sex or they're using contraception better. All researchers agree on those two," said Albert.
There's consensus that it's both. It is not an increase in abortions among teens.
"The teen pregnancy rate has plummeted. The teen abortion rate has gone down. The teen birthrate has fallen off the chart. Fewer teens are getting pregnant in the first place; it's not because they're having abortions," Albert said.
Experts also credit some perhaps unexpected reasons for the declines. When teens see fewer peers getting pregnant, fewer of them do, either. When teens think more other teens are sexually active, they are more likely to be, as well.
Research indicates that daughters of teen mothers are more likely to become teen mothers themselves. As the numbers go down, a break in that generational effect appears to follow.
While national advocacy groups point to different reasons, The National Campaign gives some perhaps unexpected credit to shows like "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" for fewer births to teenagers. While adults may worry the shows glamorize teen pregnancy and make raising babies while young look easy, Albert believes that teens have a different take. When the National Campaign asked teens what they think of the shows, 80 percent responded that they make the challenges real and the teens on the show are not viewed as lucky or glamorous. They become a kind of anti-role model.
It's likely that the economy has slowed teens, too.
"I don't want to sound naive here," said Albert. "I'm not suggesting teens are checking their 401(k)" before engaging in sexual activity. "But they are very keen observers of the world around them — sponges. It's reasonable, I think, to suggest that if in their own families they've had to cut back or the parent of a best friend across the street has been unemployed for a while, why would that not be sobering for them? In 2007, since the economy started tanking, the teen birth rate has gone down by one-third. There's something about this five-year period and I think the economy is part of the explanation."
What hasn't changed, experts note, is reasons not to become sexually active or pregnant prematurely. Studies consistently show that fewer than 40 percent of teen mothers manage to earn a high school diploma, let alone go to college. The U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health reports that "serious and exclusive dating relationships can lead adolescents to have sex earlier than they would have otherwise" and those who have sex at an early age are more likely to engage is sexually risky behavior.
It also reported that "teen parents face multiple risks for poor life outcomes.... Children born to adolescents face particular challenges — they are more likely to have poorer educational, behavioral and health outcomes throughout their lives, as compared to children born to older parents."
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