The rate of teen pregnancies has declined sharply the past two decades — by 44 percent. Yet, as the Los Angeles Times reminded in a report this week, the rate still ranks as the highest in the developed world, five times the teen birthrate in France, 2.5 times the rate in Canada.
A leading public health challenge for the country is how to bring the teen birth in line with peer nations. The argument for doing so should be plain. Babies born to teen mothers are more likely to fare poorly, in their performance in school and later in life. They often have behavioral problems, including engaging early in sexual activity, the destructive cycle repeated in the next generation.
The test is finding paths to make a leap forward. That requires confronting and following the evidence about what works in preventing teen pregnancy. In that way, the American Academy of Pediatrics has made a refreshingly straightforward contribution in a paper released online this week.
The pediatricians advise that underage teens receive prescriptions for emergency contraceptives before they start having sex. Thus, if a teen gets pregnant, she would have an option readily available. The doctors emphasize that the prescription hardly stands alone. It should be part of a comprehensive strategy involving improved education about family planning and birth control.
Doctors note that emergency contraceptives are more effective when used soon after unprotected sex, and thus their recommendation that teens have them available. Otherwise, such action gets postponed, contributing to the high birthrate among teens. Already young women who are 17 and older can purchase emergency contraceptives over the counter. Adding even younger women may seem a step too far — until you consider, as the pediatricians did, the other side of the equation, teen mothers with children whose prospects in life almost invariably are bleak.