We are divided about a lot of issues in this country, but when it comes to our views on teen pregnancy, there is a remarkable consensus: In the great majority of cases, it’s bad news.
So the good news is that there is much less bad news these days.
The birthrate among teenagers in 2016 fell 9 percent from the previous year, the National Center for Health Statistics reported this fall. Not only that, but this put the rate at 20.3 births per 1,000 women, the lowest teenage birthrate since 1940. The decline is especially sharp among nonwhite and younger teenagers. Teen pregnancy rates (which include pregnancies that don’t result in live births) have fallen too. Considering that 89 percent of teenage mothers are unmarried, and that society’s expectations for when and how women will start families are dramatically different today than in the late 1950s when teen birthrates peaked, this drop is unequivocally good news.
A related piece of good news is about abortion. While we remain sharply divided over whether and to what extent abortion should be legal, most of us agree that avoiding unwanted pregnancy in the first place is better. The declining rate of teen pregnancy is feeding directly into a declining number and rate of abortions in this country, too.
The factors causing the falling teen pregnancy rate are fairly clear, but the degree to which each factor contributes to the overall decline is less certain. As with many things in life, a combination of causes is at work.
One of the bigger factors seems to be better access to information about pregnancy prevention. While the Pew Research Center says that the number of teenagers who report using contraception the first time they have sex hasn’t changed dramatically, many of them report using more effective methods, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants. The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization dedicated to reproductive health, also found that more teens report using these methods as well as dual methods (combining hormonal birth control pills and condom use, for instance). Pew reported that more teens are also making use of emergency contraception, such as Plan B. Their surveys indicate, too, that somewhat fewer teenage girls report having sex at all, suggesting that delaying sex may play a part.
The economy may also have a role in declining birthrates and pregnancy rates. General fertility across age groups often falls after an economic downturn, as it did following the 2008 recession. But teenage pregnancy rates specifically have fallen for decades, so economic conditions are unlikely to be the largest contributing factor, even if they may have some effect.
In the bigger picture, American women are getting pregnant less often and later in life. Birthrates are broadly down for American women under the age of 30, while rising for those over that age – just not enough to offset the downturn in the younger age groups. So, overall, the country’s birthrate is declining, at least for now.
But the good news is that more of these pregnancies are happening at more mature maternal ages, when the odds are better that one or more of a child’s parents can adequately provide for their child’s physical and emotional development. This bodes well down the line for better educational achievement, better health and lower crime. And these improvements are widely distributed among ethnic and racial groups.
So this is progress on the family planning front, even as we continue to fight about the most appropriate means of family planning. Thanks to federal courts that overturned an Obama-era rule, anyone of any age can buy a Plan B pill over the counter at a local pharmacy. Regardless of whether you are “pro-choice” in the sense that phrase is usually used, women of all ages have more choices today about whether and when to have a child. More than ever, they are choosing to wait.