New Data: Teen Pregnancy, Abortion on the Rise

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Image Source / Corbis

A teenage girl holds a pregnancy test

Pregnancy rates among U.S. teenagers, which had been dropping since 1990, took an upturn in 2006, according to newly released data. The figures, obtained from government sources and abortion providers by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health think tank, echo previous Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that births among teens had risen. But the new Guttmacher report rounds out the picture: in 2006, there were 71.5 pregnancies for every 1,000 women under the age of 20. That's 3% more than in 2005. The increase was concentrated among 18- and 19-year-olds — pregnancies among those 17 or younger rose only marginally — and occurred in a year when the number of abortions among teens rose 1%.

These upticks will no doubt be scrutinized by the schools, churches and governments that had been achieving some success in lowering the teen pregnancy rate. After rising steadily with the sexual revolution of the '70s and '80s, the rate dropped sharply in the '90s — and then more slowly from 2000 until 2005 — before turning upward. But even in 2006, the most recent year for which figures are available, the rate was 39% lower than 1990's peak of 117 pregnancies for every 1,000 teen girls.

While the recent increase has been more marked in minority women, the rate of pregnancy over the long term has dropped more rapidly among black teens. In 2005, both black and non-white Hispanic teens had a pregnancy rate of just over 12%, down from 22% and 16%, respectively. (White teens have a pregnancy rate of about 4.4%, down from 8.7%.)

When it comes to abortion, the trend line has been heading downward among whites and Hispanic teens. In 1990, 43.9% of pregnant white teens terminated their pregnancies, according to the Guttmacher report. In 2006, 29.3% did. Among Hispanics, the rate dropped from 28.1% to 22.9% in the same period. But among black teens, the rate has not moved much in 15 years — holding steady at about 41%.

One of the innovations of the Guttmacher report is a state-by-state breakdown of pregnancy figures over the 17 years between 1988 and 2005. California, Hawaii and New Hampshire have been most successful in driving down their teen pregnancy rates, by 54%, 49% and 47%, respectively. But even at the other end of the scale, Arkansas, Iowa, North Dakota and Wyoming have all managed to lower their teen pregnancy rates by 25%.

For officials looking for insights into which sex-education models to copy, however, figuring out why some states have been more successful than others at reducing teen pregnancy will not be easy, especially when it comes to cases for and against the now largely discontinued abstinence-until-marriage education. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., New Hampshire, which has had a big drop in its teen pregnancy rates since 1988, received almost no federal abstinence-education funding in 2006. But neither did Wyoming, a state that has not lowered its teen pregnancy rates much. Texas, Florida and New York, the states that received the most federal abstinence funding, fell somewhere in the middle in terms of improvement.

For its part, the Guttmacher Institute is opposed to abstinence-only education. "A strong body of research shows that these programs do not work," says Heather Boonstra, a senior public policy associate at the New York City–based organization. "Fortunately, the heyday of this failed experiment has come to an end with the enactment of a new teen pregnancy prevention initiative that ensures that programs will be age-appropriate, medically accurate and, most importantly, based on research demonstrating their effectiveness." Among teens who were not heeding the abstinence advice and were sexually active, about 15% became pregnant, down from a peak of 22% in 1990.

It's too soon to tell if the increase in 2006 is the beginning of a trend or a blip, but any rise in pregnancy rates among those younger than 20 is a cause for concern — because the statistics surrounding teen mothers are so grim. Two-thirds of single moms are poor. Fewer than half of them finish high school. And only a tiny fraction (2%) of girls who are mothers before their 18th birthday will finish college before their 30th.