There’s some encouraging news in the Centers for Disease Control’s latest report about pregnancy rates among U.S. women. According to the agency, teen pregnancies have been steadily declining over the past two decades — hitting a new historic low in 2009, the most recent year with data on the subject. That’s led to new lows for the rates of teen births and abortions, too.
The teen birth rate in the United States peaked in 1991 and has been dropping ever since then. In 2012, it hit its lowest point in the entire 73 years that the CDC has been collecting these statistics. The CDC’s latest data on pregnancies and abortions is from 2009, so those trend lines don’t extend as far, but the same pattern is evident in those areas:
CREDIT: Centers for Disease Control
Experts don’t know exactly why there was a peak around 1990. But since then, pregnancy rates have declined 52 percent for girls between 15 and 17 years old, and 36 percent for girls between 18 and 19. Those trends hold true when the national data is drilled down. There have been declines in all 50 states, as well as among all racial and ethnic groups.
“In short, the progress has been both wide and deep,” Bill Albert, the chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told ThinkProgress. “The pace of progress has picked up in recent years. It is not clear if there has been one particular moment in time that represents a tipping point. The closest any of us can guess is simply that we may be seeing some significant change in social norms.”
Those changing social norms mean that teenagers are now more likely to delay sex, and more likely to use birth control as soon as they become sexually active. Indeed, the CDC’s report concludes that all U.S. women, including teenagers, are now successfully preventing more unintended pregnancies. The agency notes that disparities among women in these reproductive areas — which emerge along racial, economic, and marital lines — are directly related to whether women have the tools they need to prevent unintended pregnancy.
The data contradicts many of the assumptions that U.S. adults have about teen pregnancy. According to a recent poll conducted by the National Campaign, nearly half of Americans incorrectly believe the teen pregnancy rate has been increasing over the past two decades. Those adults aren’t giving teens enough credit for exhibiting responsible sexual behavior.
“Given the dizzying pace of progress over the past several years, I see no reason to be pessimistic about young people continuing to make good choices,” Albert noted.
But he acknowledged that doesn’t mean the U.S. should become complacent about sexual health education efforts on a local or national level. Although there’s a mounting pile of evidence about the effective sexual health curricula that can change teens’ behavior, there still aren’t any national standards for comprehensive sex ed. And in some conservative states, there’s still considerable resistance to teaching kids about birth control. Unsurprisingly, the teen pregnancy rate remains higher in areas of the country that don’t prioritize comprehensive sexual health instruction.
“Now is not the time to let up on the prevention gas pedal. It is still the case that nearly 3 in 10 teen girls get pregnant by age 20 and that the U.S. remains a real outlier when it comes to adolescent pregnancy and childbearing,” Albert told ThinkProgress.