The teen birth rate is nearly one-third higher in rural areas of the United States than it is in more populous areas of the country, and teen pregnancy rates have been much slower to decline in rural counties over the past decade, according to a new study from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The advocacy organization notes that while no single reason explains the difference in teen birth rates across regions, adolescents in rural areas likely have particular barriers to contraceptive services.
“The prevailing stereotype is that teen parenthood is primarily an urban and suburban phenomenon,” Bill Albert, the chief program officer for the National Campaign, told USA Today. But the group’s new data suggests that’s not actually the case.
As the nation has increasingly focused its efforts on preventing unintended teen pregnancies, there has been significant progress. Although the U.S. still has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, teen birth rates have plunged to record lows as adolescents have begun to use more effective forms of birth control when they become sexually active. But that trend has been slower to take root in rural areas. Between 1990 and 2010, the birth rate dropped 49 percent for teens in major urban centers and 40 percent for teens in suburban areas — but just 32 percent for adolescents who live in rural counties.
While teens across the country have largely been having less sex and using more contraception, teens in rural areas have actually been having more sex and using birth control less frequently. It’s not clear why that’s the case, but it could partly be because teens in rural areas still lack access to a range of comprehensive contraceptive services. There just aren’t as many sexual health resources in rural counties, where teens may have to travel farther to the nearest women’s health clinic. And deeply rooted attitudes about sex — including school districts that continue to cling to abstinence-only health curricula that don’t give teens enough information about methods to prevent pregnancy — may also play a role. Urban school districts, particularly in New York City, have made significant advances in expanding teens’ access to sexual education and resources, but there often aren’t similar pushes in rural places.
The United States’ culture of sexual repression has also created an environment where teen sexuality is stigmatized, and adolescents may feel too embarrassed to seek out the resources they need. The National Campaign points out that teens may feel like they can’t buy condoms in their rural town where everyone knows their name.