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Teen Pregnancy Surges

Study: 10-Year Decline in Teen Pregnancy Ends
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 26, 2010 - U.S. teen pregnancies went up 3% in 2006 after declining in the 1990s and leveling off in the early 2000s.

In state rankings based on figures from 2005 -- a year before the increase -- New Mexico had the highest and New Hampshire the lowest teen pregnancy rates.

The figures come from a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that advocates for sexual and reproductive health worldwide. The study calculates the pregnancy rate by adding births, legal abortions, and miscarriages. Estimates of illegal abortions are not included.

"This increase after a long decline means that there were 750,000 teen pregnancies in 2006 -- 7% of U.S. teens got pregnant," Lawrence Finer, PhD, Guttmacher director of domestic research, tells WebMD.

Sexual activity is not up. The increase, Finer says, is due to less effective use of contraceptives by sexually active teens.

"We have not seen too many changes in sexual activity. That is not driving the trends," he says. "In the '90s, most of the decline in teen pregnancy was due to improved contraceptive use, and some to decline in sexual activity. But that decline has plateaued -- teen pregnancy is up."

Data give some perspective on the problem. By age 19, 70% of unmarried teens have had sexual intercourse. Teens are waiting a bit longer to have sex than they have in the past. But they're also waiting longer -- until their mid- to late 20s -- to get married.

As a result, four out of five teen pregnancies are unplanned and unintended. This isn't good for teens, and it isn't good for the children of teen parents, says Susan Tortolero, PhD, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

"It is a cycle, where the child of a teen is more likely to get pregnant, drop out of school, and live in poverty," Tortolero tells WebMD. Tortolero was not involved in the Guttmacher study.

Who's to blame? Neither Finer nor Tortolero downplays a teen's personal responsibility, but both blame adults for not giving teens the tools they need. Tortolero points to the huge differences between states in teen pregnancy rates.

"It really shows you we have the technology to decrease teen pregnancy, and we are really not doing what we need to do," she says. "The adults in the U.S. want to blame the kids, the media, when in fact we are not doing what is needed to prevent teen pregnancy."

What is needed? Tortolero says we have to get over the idea that having the "talk" just one time is enough.

"We have this idea that sexual health is just one conversation with a child, where in other countries with much lower teen pregnancy rates it is an ongoing conversation throughout their lives," she says. "We have effective programs that work but the schools aren't using them. And the other thing is access to contraception."

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