U.S. teen birth rates have dropped to a record low, down nearly 50 percent since 1991, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics. There was only a slight decline in the number of teens having sex, suggesting that more adolescents are preventing pregnancy by practicing safer sex.
Experts caution that since the new study didn’t investigate teen behavior, they can’t say exactly what caused the drop in teenage pregnancies — but they suspect some encouraging trends in contraceptive use played a role. Laura Lindberg, a senior researcher at the Guttmacher Institute, told NBC News that teens are increasingly opting to use more effective forms of birth control as soon as they become sexually active, and the adolescents who use birth control during their first sexual experiences are more likely to use it down the road.
And Lindberg explained that several new policies — including guidelines encouraging doctors to prescribe long-lasting forms of contraception, new Obamacare rules removing cost barriers to birth control, and guidelines easing some of the hurdles to obtaining a birth control prescription — have helped ensure that teens now have better access to the best forms of birth control:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidelines on contraception, and now recommends long-acting birth control methods such as IUDs, which are devices implanted in the uterus, and hormonal birth control drug implants, as the first-line contraceptives offered to teens. “The reason that is important is failure rates are much lower,” Lindberg said. [...]
The Obama administration rules now require health insurers to provide birth control care for free, without even a co-pay.
Another important change — fewer doctors now require teenagers to get full pelvic exams before they will prescribe birth control. New federal guidelines say a woman doesn’t need such an exam before she’s 21, even if she is sexually active.
“We think that’s lowered what we call the psychic barrier to getting prescription contraception methods,” Lindberg said. “For teenaged girls that first (exam) can be frightening.”
But there’s even more the U.S. could do to make contraception more readily available to the young women who need it. The United States currently uses an antiquated system of tying birth control prescriptions to annual gynecological check-ups, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended that the U.S. put an end to that practice and make birth control available over the counter — which most countries around the world already do.
And increasing access to all types of birth control, including emergency contraception, could also make a difference. The Department of Health and Human Services still requires women under the age of 17 to obtain a prescription for Plan B, even though health officials have come out in opposition to the unnecessary federal policy. Particularly since a right-wing smear campaign has falsely construed emergency contraception as an abortifacient, the stigma surrounding Plan B can make it difficult for young adults to access that type of birth control — but, as a pilot program in New York City demonstrates, making Plan B available to teens can drastically lower unplanned pregnancies.