The pregnancy rate among teenagers in the United States rose for the first time in 10 years, the Washington, D.C.-based Guttmacher Institute reported Tuesday.
The United States has higher rates of teenage pregnancies, births, and abortions than other other Western industrialized countries, but teen pregnancy rates had declined steeply here in the early 1990s and plateaued through the late 1990s and early 2000s. The latest numbers show that in 2006, the teen pregnancy rate went up by 3 percent, reflecting a 4 percent increase in births and a 1 percent increase in abortions.
"After more than a decade of progress, this reversal is deeply troubling," Heather Boonstra, Guttmacher Institute senior public policy associate, said in a statement.
Why the sudden uptick?
Researchers blame Bush-era laws supporting abstinence-only education. According to the report:
The significant drop in teen pregnancy rates in the 1990s was overwhelmingly
the result of more and better use of contraceptives among sexually active teens.
However, this decline started to stall out in the early 2000s, at the same time
that sex education programs aimed exclusively at promoting abstinence -- and
prohibited by law from discussing the benefits of contraception -- became
increasingly widespread and teens' use of contraceptives declined.
The latest rate -- 71.5 pregnancies per 1,000 girls age 15 to 19 -- is still lower than it was in 1990, when there were 116.9 pregnancies per 1,000. State-level data is still being compiled for 2006, but in 2005, the highest pregnancy rates were in New Mexico (93 per 1,000 girls age 15 to 19), Nevada (90), Arizona (89), Texas (88) and Mississippi (85). and the lowest rates were in New Hampshire (33), Vermont (40), Maine (48), Minnesota (47), and North Dakota (46). Massachusetts had 49 pregnancies per 1,000 15 to 19-year-old women.
It's too soon to tell whether the 3 percent increase is a short-term fluctuation or indicative of a new, long-term issue. But add to it the fact that one out of four teenage girls have a sexually transmitted disease (STD), with many of them getting infected during or soon after having sex for the first time, and there seems to be a clear need for more realistic sex education and better communication between teens and parents.
A study published a year ago in Pediatrics showed that just five years after making a so-called "purity pledge" -- which is how the effectiveness of many abstinence-only programs are gauged -- 82 percent of teens denied having even made the pledge at all, and the age at which they first had sex was the same as those who hadn't taken the pledge. In fact, as I pointed out here back in May, the biggest difference between the pledgers and nonpledgers was that "pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage."
The Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN), a non-profit group made up of nurses and women's health professionals, suggests that while teenage girls are increasingly comfortable with having sex, they're still not comfortable about talking to their parents or to a health provider about the risks. They've launched a campaign to educate young women about human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer and is one of the most commonly contracted STD among teens.
Parents, have you had "the talk" with your kids, and did it include information about STDs and contraception? How old were they, and how did you broach the subject?