In 1970, roughly 645,000 babies were born to American teens ages 15 to 19. In 2010, the number was about 368,000, a 43 percent drop from the 1970 peak and the fewest births recorded in this age group since 1946. The report this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscores the significant national decline in the teen birth rate across racial and ethnic groups and in all but three states in the country.
You wouldn’t guess the progress from the fervor among presidential primary candidates and in various state legislatures to restrict reproductive services and withdraw public funding from Planned Parenthood, a critical source of reproductive health services and education to millions of low-income women and girls. Thankfully, on Tuesday, an Ohio House committee stripped language targeted at Planned Parenthood.
The CDC report notes the substantial declines during the past two decades. The teen birth rate has dropped from 61.8 per 1,000 in 1991 to 34.4 in 2010, even though the teen female population rose during this period. (Ohio’s rate of 34.2 was the 23rd highest in the country.) Had the 1991 national rate persisted through 2010, the report estimates there would have been 3.4 million more teen births.
The critical factor in the decline, without question, is the strong campaign to prevent teen pregnancies. Too often, advocates of a comprehensive approach to reduce teen pregnancies have had to fight an uphill battle against the socially conservative emphasis on abstinence only. Yet data from the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth suggest that much of the decline may derive from increased use of contraception among teens who engage in sex for the first time as well as increasing use of both condoms and hormonal birth control by sexually active teens. In addition, more teens are choosing to delay sexual activity. The drop in the birth rate highlights the necessity and effectiveness of the multiple approach.
As encouraging as the overall decline is, the rate of teen births remains distressingly high in some states and among Latino and African-American teens. Mississippi recorded the highest rate among the states, at 55 per 1,000, while the Hispanic teen birth rate reached 55.7. At 51.5 in 2010, the black teen birth rate is sharply down from 118.2 in 1991.
The effort to drive down the rate of teen births and pregnancies is far from over, considering the health and social costs associated with too-early parenthood. It is all the more disheartening that so much of the recent political debate has focused on reversing access to contraceptive services and denying Planned Parenthood the means to provide essential health services.