Europe Eclipses U.S. Success in Preventing Teen Pregnancy

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 25, 2000 (Atlanta) -- In countries around the globe, rates of teen pregnancy and abortion are declining, report public health researchers in a recent issue of Family Planning Perspectives.However, the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. still exceeds those of other industrialized countries, the survey indicates.

According to the report, conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, the Netherlands leads the pack, with only 12 pregnancies per 1,000 adolescent women each year. Most of Europe has a "very low" or "low" rate -- fewer than 40 pregnancies per 1,000. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have "moderate rates," between 40 and 69 pregnancies per 1,000.

But then there are five countries --the U.S., Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Russian Federation -- that have pregnancy rates of 70 or more per 1,000 adolescents. In the U.S., the birth rate was 54 per 1,000 women aged 15-19, and the pregnancy rate was 83 per 1,000 women in that age group.

"It's important to note that we have improved," says Susheela Singh, PhD, director of research at the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Thirty years ago, Singh says, 68 of every 1,000 teen-aged women in the U.S. gave birth. By 1997, the number had dropped to about 52, she says. Still, that cannot compete with the successes seen in other countries.

Europe has been more successful for many reasons, she says. First, there seems to be greater acceptance that teens will be sexually active. In turn, schools offer condom machines and emergency contraception as well as comprehensive education on sexuality and birth control.

In the U.S., Singh says, children get a conflicting message. Parents probably would want their children to use contraception, but they say their children really should not be sexually active. "That conflict of values would be confusing," she says.

"In Europe, sex is a public health issue, driven by research," adds James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, based in Washington, D.C. "In the U.S., sex is a political issue driven by controversy."

"Our society should be more open with regard to sex education in the primary and secondary schools, and we should have more open families in terms of discussions of family values and attitudes," adds Lawrence V. Gratkins, MD, a veteran obstetrician-gynecologist at Christie Clinic in Champaign, Ill.

"We have a very long way to go," says Machelle Allen, MD, of New York University's department of obstetrics and gynecology. An expert in teen pregnancy, she tells WebMD, "Teens are being educated in the street rather than by their parents. Strides have been made, though we have always had a higher unwanted pregnancy rate than some countries, but those rates are going down."