Why Teen Pregnancies Are on the Rise

An uptick in teen pregnancies and abortions may be due to abstinence education but also other factors.

By + More

Last year I reported that, after a decade of steady decline, teen birth rates were increasing in 26 states. So it's no great surprise that teen pregnancies are on the rise too, as a report issued Tuesday by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that focuses on sexual health, found. The report found that the pregnancy rate among American teens rose 3 percent in 2006 (the latest year for which statistics are available), teen birth rates rose 4 percent, and abortion rates were up 1 percent. Overall, about 7.2 percent of girls ages 15 through 19 became pregnant in 2006, compared with nearly 7 percent in 2005.

We're still doing better than we were in 1990, when nearly 12 percent of teenage girls became pregnant. (About 80 percent of teen pregnancies are unintended.) Still, some states, including New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas, have current rates hovering near 10 percent, And in New York, which has the highest abortion rate, 4 percent of teens and nearly 9 percent of black teens have terminated a pregnancy.

If you believe the already whirling political spin, the reasons for the uptick are simple. "This new study makes it crystal clear that abstinence-only sex education for teenagers does not work," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said in an E-mailed statement. "It should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who still believes that teenagers aren't sexually active or that abstinence-only programs curb the rate of teen pregnancy." She's happy that President Obama eliminated abstinence-only education funding and has instead set aside $100 million for comprehensive sex education programs to prevent teen pregnancies.

Spinning in the opposite direction, Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association told the Washington Post that she blamed the increase on "an oversexualized culture, lack of involved and positive role models, and the dominant message that teen sex is expected and without consequences." [More on abstinence-only vs. comprehensive sex education.]

But Heather Boonstra, Guttmacher's senior public policy associate, tells me the reasons for the increase are probably complex and multifold. "We've been seeing declines in contraceptive use," she says, probably at least in part because of complacency about the HIV virus that fueled a rise in condom use among teens in the 1990s. She also says teen pregnancy seems to be more acceptable in many American towns and cities as teens flock to blockbuster movies like Juno (which positively portrays a pregnant teen) and see pregnant peers in their classes, something that was rare several decades ago.

Still another reason could be a purported surge in domestic violence in teenage relationships. One third of teens say they've been in an abusive relationship at some point, and a study in the current issue of the journal Contraception finds that women in these relationships are twice as likely to have an unintended pregnancy. That's often because their partners coerce them to become pregnant by, say, flushing their birth control pills down the toilet or refusing to wear a condom, says Boonstra.

But, she adds, "it's certainly reasonable to believe that changes in policy [during the Bush years] that provided funding for abstinence-only education programs played a role in a subsequent flattening out and reversal of [the decline in] teen pregnancy rates." And it's possible that increased funding for comprehensive sex education programs that encourage abstinence while also teaching about contraception could start preventing some of these pregnancies in the next few years. But parents can make a difference, too. My colleague Dr. Bernadine Healy has identified these 8 traits of teens who abstain from sex.