U.S. teen birthrate plummets, raising research questions

This year the birthrate for Colorado teenagers dropped significantly, mirroring a record drop for teen births across the country, which hit an all-time-low 3.9 percent, according to a report brought out by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. That’s a 6 percent drop-off from just last year. The figures are being celebrated as a great thing. How did we do it? Some are speculating it’s the bad economy. Some say it’s the billions taxpayers have poured into abstinence-only programs. Others say we’re finally mastering contraception. The facts line up in support of the last of those three theories.

It’s not the recession.

Emily Bridges, director of public information services at Advocates for Youth, agrees with other observers in pointing out that teens aren’t likely to include national economics as a significant factor in pondering whether or not to have unprotected sex. Peer pressure, badly mixed booze, general awkwardness, for example, are much more likely than the jobless recovery to play on the minds of horny high schoolers.

Statistics back that up. According to the CDC, teen birthrates actually climbed in five states– Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and West Virginia– each of which has been hit hard by the bad economy.

It’s not abstinence-only education.

Pat Fagan head of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute at the controversial Christian-values think tank Family Research Council said that because it’s nearly impossible to tease out the degree of influence exerted by each of the factors in the complex mix of factors at work on the teens, you can’t say definitively that abstinence education isn’t working.

It is an odd claim for a professional researcher to make. Fagan couldn’t say definitively that TARP spending or global warming or Glee isn’t lowering teen birthrates, either.

“This is the peak time of the investment in abstinence education,” he said, upping the ante through suggestion. “More money was flowing to [abstinence programs] than any other time before or since.”

Fagan is right on that score.

Over the last decade or so, the US government has spent roughly $1.5 billion on abstinence education programs and, in fiscal year 2009, the nation spent $124.4 million.

Although Colorado rejects Title V federal abstinence money, community groups here could apply to the government directly and receive so-called Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) and Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) funds. Although President Obama ended CBAE funds, abstinence groups in Colorado won more than $3.7 million last year through these streams before CBAE shuttered.

Bridges told the Colorado Independent that this kind of funding raised a lot of concerns. She said the programs CBAE paid for and AFLA pays for mostly escape oversight. Community groups use the money to set up websites and give presentations at schools and at churches, but there is relatively little vetting of the people involved and of the information they’re imparting to students.

In the year of the great American birthrate decline, some states and state groups spent little or no money on abstinence programs, partly because they see it as a waste of resources.

Minnesota was one of five states to take no cash from the government for abstinence education. Texas took $10.2 million, more than any other state.

Minnesota notched one of the lowest teen birth rates * (see note below) at 6.3; Texas notched one of the highest at 13.3.

Colorado landed in the middle at 9.1.

The state-by-state list of birth rates* suggests that, if you’re a parent looking to prevent teen pregnancy in your home, you should move to the liberal northeast. Safest is New Hampshire, where teens give birth at a rate of 5.7. New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York are all nearly as low. Stay away from the deep south and New Mexico. Never relocate to Puerto Rico.

Bridges said that although data about abstinence only programs suggests that they work mostly to teach teens to not use contraception.

“The programs don’t work to achieve abstinence. Teens who go through those programs are not any more likely to be abstinent than teens who don’t go through them and they’re less likely to use contraception.”

Bridges cites research being done by the Guttmacher Institute to say that the most likely explanation for the falling teen birthrate is that Americans are figuring out how to use contraception properly and are making better decisions about what contraceptives work best for them.

* The CDC table of birthrates linked above is unclear on whether it is listing birthrates or percentages or births per million, et cetera. The Colorado Independent has made calls and will report on any and all updates it receives from the CDC and the author of the tables.

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