Feb. 11, 2013 at 12:03 AM ET
Teenage birth rates fell 8 percent in a single year, from 2010 to 2011, the newest data shows. They’ve now plunged 25 percent since 2007 and they are down 49 percent since 1991, the federal government says.
Births to teen mothers are now at a record low in the United States, the National Center for Health Statistics reports in Monday’s issue of the journal Pediatrics. The new rate: 31.3 births per 1,000 girls and women aged 15 to 19.
“There is lots of good news in the report,” said Brady Hamilton, a statistician at the NCHS who led the study.
It's good news because such births are almost always unplanned and the parents are rarely ready to cope with the responsibility of raising a baby. Teenaged moms are also more likely to have babies of a smaller-than-healthy weight or to have stillborn babies.
The study looks at numbers alone and doesn't address changes in teen behavior. But other research suggests that teens are more easily able to get birth control, says Laura Lindberg, a senior researcher at the Guttmacher Institute.
“If anyone tells you they know exactly why this has happened, they are lying,” Lindberg said in a telephone interview. “We don’t have all the research and behavioral data in place up to 2011.”
That said, there are more than a few hints, according to Lindberg.
“We have gone from a social norm where you don’t use contraception at first sex to where you do,” she said. “Lots of study shows that using contraception at first sex begins a pattern of using it down the road.”
Other statistics show that teenage sex is only down slightly, although girls and boys both are having sex later in their teens. “In contrast, there is an increase in contraceptive use, particularly hormonal methods,” Lindberg said. Guttmacher researchers study reproductive health and behavior.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidelines on contraception, and now recommends long-acting birth control methods such as IUDs, which are devices implanted in the uterus, and hormonal birth control drug implants, as the first-line contraceptives offered to teens. “The reason that is important is failure rates are much lower,” Lindberg said.
“Especially for teens, once an IUD is there, there’s nothing to remember. You don’t have to do it every morning.”
Teens also increasingly use both condoms and hormonal protection such as birth control pills, Lindberg says.
The Obama administration rules now require health insurers to provide birth control care for free, without even a co-pay.
Another important change – fewer doctors now require teenagers to get full pelvic exams before they will prescribe birth control. New federal guidelines say a woman doesn’t need such an exam before she’s 21, even if she is sexually active.
“We think that’s lowered what we call the psychic barrier to getting prescription contraception methods,” Lindberg said. “For teenaged girls that first (exam) can be frightening.”
The data show teenage births are down across almost all the states and among all ethnic groups. “There is probably is no one state policy that did this,” Lindberg says
There may be other factors, too, said Hamilton. “There’s the economy,” he said. “Choices about whether to engage in risky behavior very much hedges on consideration of the consequences.”
Lindberg says researchers at Guttmacher have noticed that, too. “I think there has been a lot of hunkering down that may have changed the dynamic …that teens are giving to their decisions,” she said.
“It may be hard to get pregnant if you are living in your parents’ basement.”
Hamilton made another calculation too. He asked how many fewer babies have been born to teenaged moms.
“If the rates in 1991 had remained the same, there would have been 3.6 million additional births to moms aged 15-19,” he said. More than a million fewer babies came into the world between 2008 and 2011. “This has had a real impact,” he said.
Even with the drop, U.S. teen birth rates are far higher than in other developed countries. In 2010, the U.S. had a teen birth rate of 37.9 per 1,000 women. In Russia, the country with the next-highest rate, it was 30.2 per 1,000, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. In Switzerland, the rate was 4.3 births per 1,000 teen women; in Britain it was 25 per 1,000.