Despite years of improved contraception use and declining pregnancy and birth rates amongst teens, a joint study (PDF) by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Guttmacher Institute reports that these trends may have stalled or, in some cases, reversed. Even though the study, published in the July issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that rates of teen sexual activity remained relatively unchanged from 2003 to 2007, teens’ contraceptive use declined by 10% during that time. Correlating with this decrease, the study also found that the teen birth rate increased by 5% from 2005 to 2007.
These data suggest that contraceptive use was a key driver in changing teen pregnancy rates — with little significant change in sexual activity, except among black teens. Improvements in contraceptive use in the 1990s and early 2000s were found primarily for condom use, nonuse, and use of withdrawal. Pill use declined significantly among Hispanics and blacks, coincident with the increase in condom use. Quadratic trends suggested a reversal in trends in condom use after 2003 – overall and among black teens. Thus, declining contraceptive use may be the primary determinant of the 2006 increase in birth.
The study suggests that these trends may be linked to the abstinence-only sex education programs championed by former President George W. Bush. President Obama’s proposed budget for 2010 departs from this trend, favoring more comprehensive sex education programs.
Researchers also draw a link in declining public concern for sexually transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS as a contributing factor in decreased condom use. Shifts in the demographic composition of the teen population may also be linked to the increased birthrate, with more Latinas, who have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and birth, now being represented.
Although the results represent small changes in the rates of contraceptive use and pregnancy amongst teens, Laura Lindberg, one of the study’s authors, says that they nonetheless “raise concern about what the next few years will bring in this country.” In terms of public policy, the authors suggest looking to European approaches to reducing teen pregnancy. While the United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, some European countries, such as the Netherlands, boast the some of the worlds’ lowest. The authors advise:
The U.S. might redirect its energy from persistently divisiveness political debates around sexuality education and abortion to support reinvigorated efforts to prevention of unplanned pregnancy by promoting the importance of consistent and effective contraception and protection against STIs. A consensus among adults on how to promote health sexuality would benefit teens as they struggle with the perils and perplexities of emerging adolescent sexuality.