The January 25, 2010 issue of USA Today carried an update on teenage pregnancy rates, live birth rates, and abortion incidence. Based on complete nationwide statistics as of 2008, the information was noteworthy because analysis of National Center for Health Statistics data for 2005/2006 and done by the Guttmacher Institute revealed that all three consequences of adolescent sexual activity had risen again after falling continuously from the “peak” in 1990.
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In the spotlight was the matter of teen pregnancy since teen births and abortion are both consequences of the former. The report revealed a 2008 teen pregnancy incidence of seven percent and the corresponding rate of 71.5 pregnancies per 1,000 teenagers. Both numbers had risen minimally since 2005, when the last National Vital Statistics Survey ran, but remained below the 1990 peak of 12 percent incidence (Jayson, 2010).
Teen pregnancies are a matter of concern because, for the most part, the marital status of the adolescent mothers involved is “never married” (Ventura, Mathews, & Hamilton, 2001). This is the “non-judgmental” term of art, politically correct alternative of liberal and progressive sociologists and media for premarital sexual activity.
Marital status aside, the data cover the age cohort 15 to 20 years. This means the 750,000 pregnancies recorded in 2005 (2006 for state-level data) included girls who were minors or nominally adult (at 18 and 19 years) but still in high school or first-year college. In a high school class of 28 evenly divided between males and females, the pregnancy incidence of 7.2 percent is equal to a probability that one of the 14 girls in class became pregnant in 2006.
Guttmacher contends that the slight rise is disappointing because the teen pregnancy rate had dropped the previous year to 69.5 per thousand, the lowest in thirty years. Using 1975 as the base year is by no means arbitrary or guileless since first births for (unmarried) 18- and 19-year-olds, by way of example, were considerably higher as the decade of the 1970s started (Colen, Geronimus & Phipps, 2002).
To explain the phenomenon, Jayson (2010) accepts the Guttmacher view that campaigns promoting abstinence among unmarried teenagers are to blame. Since Guttmacher is ideologically inclined towards making “comprehensive sex education” – covering reproductive biology and the benefits of every possible contraceptive option – available down to sixth grade, the Institute derided the reversal of teen pregnancy rates as resulting from the “emphasis” given by the President Bush administration to “Abstinence Only” sex education.
Discussion Based on Peer-Reviewed Sources
The Tainted Debate About Cause and Effect
There is a great deal at stake in the ideologically-biased discourse for the health and wellbeing of the 22 million females aged 10 to 19 years as of July 2009. Proponents of full-contraceptive education programs such as Planned Parenthood and Guttmacher argue, in effect, that “abstinence causes pregnancy”. They blame the Federal government for spending money at all on programs to promote abstinence. For one, the purveyors of contraceptives insist, it is too “moralistic” to tell teenagers to avoid sex outside of marriage since this is tantamount to letting religion into the classroom. Secondly, those who argue for comprehensive contraceptive education worry that keeping quiet about the availability of condoms and vaginal sheaths exposes adolescents to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other incurable sexually-transmitted infections.
The ideological battle over adolescent sexual behavior is being waged with propaganda. Being propaganda, the evidence offered glosses over inconvenient truths. For instance, the inverse correlation with abstinence education during the Bush years conveniently ignores the fact that President Clinton also funded such programs. That teen pregnancy rates fell in the 1990s and rose in the middle of this decade is only partly explained by the availability of Federal support for abstinence programs. Colen, Geronimus, and Phipps (2002) suggest that the robust state of the economy in the 1990s served to increase the employment opportunities for both White and Black adolescents. Having worked, the authors found, has a dampening effect on the propensity for experimenting with sex outside marriage. In this decade, in contrast, America has suffered from almost continuous economic doldrums: the recession of 2001 blamed on the bursting of the “dot-com” bubble, followed by years of sluggish economic growth, and the current depression that commenced in the second half of 2007 with no end in sight.
A federally-funded randomized controlled trial and longitudinal study on 662 grades 6 and 7 African-American students found that sex-education classes devoted solely to abstinence reduced the propensity for engaging in non-marital sexual intercourse substantially better than contraceptive-only or combined abstinence-contraceptive classes. Sexual initiation was measured 24 months after the interventions started solely via a self-report questionnaire about experiences over the prior two years. Specifically, just one-third of those who attended abstinence-only sex education commenced sexual intercourse (or, more likely, attempted to do so) compared to nearly half of those attending classes where contraceptives were discussed. In statistical terms, the risk ratio for sexual initiation was reduced by 0.67 (95% confidence interval: 0.48-0.96) compared to 0.51 for the control group. Other findings were a 32 percent lower incidence of reporting coitus in three months (Jemmott, Jemmott & Fong, 2010).
The Determinants of Teenage Sexual Activity and AbortionThis section briefly discusses the high rate of abortion in America about parental involvement, communication, race, and financial deprivation. The year Roe v. Wade allowed legal abortion, about 23 per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19 years had abortions performed on themselves.
The rate more than doubled (to 44) by 1989 and, in common with the pattern for adult women, trended downward to 20 by 2003. In 2005, however, the rate increased (Jayson, 2010; Jones, Zolna, Henshaw & Finer, 2008). This suggests that at least 28.2 percent of teen pregnancies were unintended and over one-fourth of the adolescent females concerned were distressed enough about getting pregnant to want to be rid of their fetus. Remarkably, the rate of teen abortions is the highest globally notwithstanding the availability of contraceptives, the earlier age at which other nationalities start premarital sex, and the fact that sex education is taught beginning grade 5 (Warren, 1992). Given all these, one must ask, what are the precipitating factors for unwanted pregnancy and teen abortion?
Lower socioeconomic status does help explain premarital sex and abortion.
Sullivan (1993) was one of the first to investigate the implication of expectancy theory for explaining the link between income disadvantage and falling into the trap of premarital sex.
The author did secondary research, merging two data sets for three neighborhoods in Brooklyn: vital statistics concerning births and abortions on one hand and socio-demographic data on the other. The lower the income, the less inclination there was to marry when a teenaged girlfriend became “unintentionally” pregnant. From the viewpoint of the female, the author proposed, restrictive life options reduced inhibitions about becoming pregnant before marriage. Beyond the difficult choices posed by financial hardship, Sullivan also noted that among four races resident in Brooklyn and irrespective of comparable incomes, African-Americans were the most likely to seek an abortion and least likely to marry.
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In contrast, largely-Catholic Latinos had lower abortion rates and more readily formed unions.
One cue to the importance of parental involvement may be derived from those states where parental consent for teen abortion is mandated by law. When state-level pregnancy and abortion rates for 1989 and 1992 were regressed alongside hypothesized independent variables such as abortion attitudes, the existence of laws mandating parental consent for an abortion, educational attainment, and race profiles, it was found that abortion rates are lower in states that require parental consent.
The often-discussed possibility that pregnant teenagers can cross state lines to avoid involving their parents was statistically insignificant. As well, teenage abortion rates fell markedly whenever the incidence of HIV doubled.
Presuming that termination of pregnancy (TOP) validly parallels non-marital sexual activity, Altman-Palm and Tremblay (1998) conclude that older adolescent females are capable of curtailing unprotected and unmarried sexual intercourse when perceived costs become high. Put another way, adolescent females are motivated to undergo abortions by fear that their parents will find out that (a) they have been sexually active and (b) they have gotten pregnant while unmarried.
The debate about the kind of sex education that will more likely prevent teenage pregnancy and abortion rests on a fallacy: that it is alright for teenagers to engage in premarital sexual activity as long as they do not contract HIV/AIDS or other incurable sexually-transmitted infections and as long as they are allowed to terminate “unintentional pregnancies” by recourse to abortion. It is also specious to continue to replicate research that traces the greater likelihood of non-marriage and abandonment of pregnant underage females by pointing to “disadvantaged” African-Americans as the worst culprits.
The inescapable fact is that abstinence-only sex education has been shown to sharply reduce the propensity for sexual exploration as early as grades 6 and 7, even among African-American girls. Including all forms of contraceptives, such as the non-shield variety, cannot be justified either by the ostensibly well-meant goal of preventing the spread of HIV. There is also evidence that pregnant teenagers are less likely to seek an abortion when their parents must be told they are pregnant.
On the evidence at hand, one concludes that the full brunt of sex education must shift to total abstinence until marriage. Parents, churches, and schools must unite to convince the young to postpone sexual exploration until after marriage.
Abstinence works and it will be even more effective if schools and parents return to non-permissive attitudes.
Else adolescent women barely out of high school risk more pregnancies and abortion.
Altman-Palm, N. & Tremblay, C. H. (1998). The effects of parental involvement laws and the AIDS epidemic on the pregnancy and abortion rates of minors. Social Science Quarterly, 79 (4): 846-62.
Colen, C.G., Geronimus, A.T. & Phipps, M.G. (2002). Getting a piece of the pie? Declining teen birth rates during the 1990s. Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Jayson, S. (2010). Teen pregnancy, abortion rates rise. USA Today.
Jemmott J.B. 3rd, Jemmott, L.S. & Fong, G.T. (2010). Efficacy of a theory-based abstinence-only intervention over 24 months. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 164 (2): 152–9. DOI:10.1001/archpediatrics.2009.267.
Jones, R.K., Zolna, M. R. S., Henshaw, S. K. & Finer, L. B. (2008). Abortion in the United States: Incidence and access to services, 2005. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 40(1):6-16.
Sullivan, M. L. (1993). Culture and class as determinants of out-of-wedlock childbearing and poverty during late adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 3 (3) 295-316.
Ventura, S.J., Mathews, T.J. & Hamilton, B.E. (2001). Births to teenagers in the United States, 1940-2000. National Vital Statistics Reports, 49 (10) Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
Warren, C. (1992). Perspectives on international sex practices and American family sex communication relevant to teenage sexual behavior in the United States. Health Communication, 4 (2) 121-36.