Pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates among U.S. teenagers continue to plummet to record lows, confirming an encouraging trend that federal researchers have been tracking for the past two decades. The latest evidence in this area comes from researchers at the Guttmacher Institute, who found that much of the drop can be attributed to the fact that teens are making responsible choices and practicing safe sex.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, pregnancies among teenage women between the ages of 15 and 19 have dropped by 15 percent in just two years. That’s contributed to more than a 50 percent drop since the teen pregnancy rate peaked in 1990. Birth rates and abortion rates have experienced similarly steep declines over the past several years:
Guttmacher’s data tracks closely with recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found that the teen pregnancy and abortion rates hit new historic lows in 2009. The CDC researchers concluded that, although it’s unclear whether there was a specific tipping point in this area, more teens are now successfully preventing pregnancy by using contraception. Guttmacher’s latest report underscores that point, finding that more teens between the ages of 18 and 19 are now having sex, but fewer of them are becoming pregnant.
“The decline in the teen pregnancy rate is great news,” the report’s lead author, Kathryn Kost, noted. “Other reports had already demonstrated sustained declines in births among teens in the past few years; but now we know that this is due to the fact that fewer teens are becoming pregnant in the first place.”
“The good news is that we know what works to prevent teen pregnancy. Sex education works. Ensuring that teens have access to birth control works,” Leslie Kantor, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of education, added. “When young people have accurate information and resources, they make responsible decisions.”
But that positive news will probably come as a big surprise to many Americans. According to a 2013 survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, most adults incorrectly believe that the teen pregnancy rate has been increasing over the past two decades.
“Given that the news has been so good for so long — teen pregnancy and births are down nationally, in all 50 states, and among all racial and ethnic groups — it remains a mystery why so many adults are clueless about the nation’s progress,” Bill Alpert, the chief program officer at the National Campaign, told ThinkProgress.
Perhaps it seems like things are getting worse because there’s always a new trend that inspires moral panic about teens’ risky sexual behavior — like sexting, “raunchy” pop songs, the college “hook up culture,” and TV shows’ supposed “glamorization” of teen pregnancy. Social conservatives also often raise concerns about the fact that Americans are increasingly having sex and children outside of marriage, equating changing family structures with bad choices. And it doesn’t help that the public health campaigns to discourage teen pregnancy often rely on doom-and-gloom messages to shame teens for making terrible decisions that will ruin their lives.
Ultimately, the fact that more teens are successfully using birth control doesn’t fit into our larger societal narrative that kids are always irresponsible. Americans tend to be reluctant to trust teenagers to manage their own sexual health, and often treat sex as something that’s totally outside kids’ realm of understanding.
“I suspect it’s a general reluctance to give credit where credit is due; namely, to teens themselves,” Alpert noted. “The steep and steady declines in teen pregnancy and childbearing wreak havoc on the conventional wisdom that teen behavior is bad and getting worse.”
This post has been updated to include a comment from Planned Parenthood.