Each year when the national teen birth rate statistics are released by the CDC, the media get very excited. This year the birth rate is down to about thirty-four births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, which Reuters attributes to the bad economy, better sex education and even cautionary TV shows like MTV’s Teen Mom. But just two years ago, when the teen birth rate rose slightly in twenty-six states, the media cited many of the very same factors: USA Today attributed that change to worse sex-education; pop-culture depictions of pregnant teens, such as the movi Juno; and celebrity teen moms, such as Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears.
I’d argue for spending less time peering at the year-to-year fluctuations in the teen birth rate and instead look at the big picture, which shows the United States has exponentially more teen moms than any other developed world nation.
*chart via the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
We can only gesture toward the myriad factors causing this problem, but here are some likely ones: lack of knowledge about and access to affordable contraception (one in five sexually active teenage girls do not use any kind of birth control); lack of access to abortion-providers in 87 percent of American counties; increased immigration from nations where teen pregnancy is more the norm; and even high poverty rates that cause some girls to see motherhood as the only viable path to adulthood, since a college education and decent job are unavailable to them.
The good news is that the American teen birth rate has steadily decreased over the past seventy years, despite year-to-year ups and downs. The bottom line, though, is that the United States remains an outlier not only on the teen birth rate but on teen pregnancy and abortion, too, which occur far more often here than in European nations. Clearly, our hot-potato reproductive rights debate isn’t solving these problems, which is just one of many good reasons why we should ratchet down the politicization of this public health issue and take a common sense prevention approach, one that accepts that over 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex.