Losing the War on Teen Pregnancy?

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Obscured in the hoopla surrounding Sarah Palin’s personal family values is the fact that we are losing the war on teen pregnancy and trapping another generation of the most vulnerable women and children in poverty. After dramatic successes in the nineties, teen births are rising and rising most, not for those who like the Palins have the resources to support their grandchildren, but for those families who cannot support the children they already have.

The figures had been heartening. Teen pregnancy and birth rates fell dramatically during the nineties. Between 1991 and 2005, overall teen pregnancies declined by thirty-four percent. The most promising news was the decline in teen births to the most vulnerable mothers. African-Americans experienced the steepest drops with a 42 percent decline among adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 between 1991 and 2002, and an even greater decline (an astonishing 52%) among African American girls in the 15 to 17-year-old age group.

Abortions also fell during the same period, and commentators of the right (abstinence promotion) and left (contraception) competed to claim credit. The results are now in. John Santelli, in the American Journal of Public Health, reported that 86% of the drop in teen pregnancies were the result of more effective contraception; 14% from greater abstinence. Moreover, the success rates in different groups came from different sources. For whites, pregnancies, abortions and births all dropped. Greater abstinence clearly played a role. For African-American and Latina women, however, abortion rates remained high, and a number of studies, including those by the Guttmacher Institute, confirm that poorer women are at greater risk from coercive sexual encounters, unplanned pregnancies, and less effective access to contraception. Moreover, the results vary regionally. A New York Times editorial in January of 2008 emphasized that”[a]lmost two-thirds of the decline in the total number of abortions can be traced to eight jurisdictions with few or no abortion restrictions :. . . places . . . that have shown a commitment to real sex education. . . . These jurisdictions also help women avoid unintended pregnancies by making contraception widely available.”

This progress, however, has not been maintained. Teen births have begun to edge back up. The largest increases have been for those teens with the least resources – African-Americans between the ages of 15 to 19. Moreover, even in the prosperous nineties, the unintended pregnancy rate for women of all ages rose 29% among women living below the poverty level even as it fell for everyone else. Since 2002, contraceptive use for the country as a whole has fallen, driven in particular by higher rates of non-use by low-income women of color.

These figures are a tragedy. Studies show the worst prospects for children born to very young mothers. Women who wait until their mid-twenties to give birth experience less depression, more stable families, and healthier offspring. Moreover, we know what works from global experience with family planning efforts. Comprehensive sex education that provides support for abstinence and contraception produces the greatest declines in pregnancies and abortions, and school-based efforts have the biggest payoff for poor teens who studies find are the most likely to lack information from other sources.

In the seventies, consensus existed that reducing teen births offered the most effective anti-poverty strategy. In the current round of the culture wars, the poor have dropped out of sight as the most extreme views have been cynically used as wedge issues to eliminate the possibility of compromise, and undermine support for programs sensitive to needs of the Americans most at risk. The result guarantees that, indeed, the poor will always be with us.

June Carbone

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