July 23, 2004 -- Despite dramatic declines during the past decade, teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. are still the highest in the industrialized world. And new research shows that for a surprisingly high number of teens getting pregnant may be the goal.
Almost a quarter of the low-income, black teenaged girls surveyed as part of a University of Alabama, Birmingham study expressed a desire to become pregnant in the "near future."
The study is one of the first to examine attitudes about having a baby among adolescent girls who were not yet pregnant, and researcher Susan L. Davies, PhD, says the findings highlight a component of teen pregnancy that has been largely ignored.
"It is a big mistake to assume in intervention programs that pregnancy is always something that adolescents want to avoid, especially low-income girls," she says. "I think some of our public health efforts need to be directed at finding out what would motivate girls who desire pregnancy to postpone childbearing."
Since 1990, the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. has dropped by almost a third but between 800,000 and 900,000 American teenagers still get pregnant each year.
As part of a larger study, Davies and colleagues questioned 455 low-income, black girls aged 14 to 18. Among other things, the girls were asked about their use of contraceptives, their sexual partners, and their attitudes about pregnancy.
Nearly a quarter expressed a desire to become pregnant. These girls were 3.5 times more likely than those who did not desire pregnancy to have a boyfriend or partner at least five years older than they were. They were also more than twice as likely to have had a casual sexual partner in the recent past and to report inconsistent condom use. The findings are reported in the August issue of the journal Health, Education, and Behavior.
Davies says the findings indicate that girls who desire pregnancy behave in ways that will help them meet their goal, and that their perception of the role of the male partner in parenthood may be minimal.
Although little research has been done into the socioeconomic characteristics of teen girls who desire pregnancy, Davies says it is pretty clear that the phenomenon is limited to lower-income adolescents who are more likely to perceive their future as bleak and motherhood as romantic.
"Young girls who are headed to college aren't thinking about getting pregnant," she says. "But if you are a sophomore in a lousy high school and getting terrible grades, and the best that you can hope for is a job at the Dairy Queen, then dropping out and having a baby may seem like your best option."
Public health researcher Lorraine Klerman, PhD, who has studied teen pregnancy throughout her career, says the best hope of keeping young girls from viewing early motherhood as a desirable goal is to improve their educational opportunities. Klerman is a professor at Brandeis University.
"We have to start earlier so that we haven't lost these kids by the time they reach high school," she says. "We have to clean up the school and make them better places to learn. And we have to make sure that young girls get the message that there are reasonably good jobs out there for them if they stay in school."