Lessons From the UK on Reducing Unintended Teen Pregnancies
Sexuality educators and public health experts have long argued that reducing unintended teen pregnancy rates takes an all-hands-on-deck approach—one that combines sexuality education, contraceptive access, and public education. One town in the United Kingdom, which was once considered the “teen conception” capital of England, has done just this and has seen a 42 percent drop in teen pregnancy over the last decade.
In 1998, 218 teens under age 18 in Swindon gave birth, but by 2011-2012 the number was down to 118. The teen pregnancy rate (referred to in the UK as the teen conception rate) dropped to 25.2 per 1,000 young women under 18, which is lower than the national rate for England of 29.4 per 1,000 young women.
New York Post to NYC Teens: Give Birth!
Last week, New York City’s Department of Health released numbers showing that teen pregnancy rates in the city have fallen considerably in the last decade. So for some reason, the New York Post, the city’s conservative home town paper decided it needed to stir up a fake controversy by suggesting that the Bloomberg administration is trying to keep the data on how much birth control schools have really distributed under wraps.
Health Commissioner Tom Farley certainly didn’t seem to have anything to hide when he hailed the city’s 27 percent decline in teen pregnancy. Farley suggested that the drop comes because fewer teens are having sex and more teens using birth control.
Farley said “It shows that when you make condoms and contraception available to teens, they don’t increase their likelihood of being sexually active. But they get the message that sex is risky.”
The commissioner is referring, in part, to the school district’s CATCH Program, Connecting Adolescents To Comprehensive Health, which uses Health Department doctors and school nurses to prescribe and distribute birth control to students. The program also provides pregnancy tests; education on contraceptive methods, including condoms; STI prevention education; education on pregnancy options and referrals to primary care; STI testing and treatment; and mental health counseling. The program started in 2011 with five schools and expanded to 13 schools by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
The CATCH program made headlines at the start of the school year when a New York Post article said it was giving out Emergency Contraception to students has young as 14 without their parents’ knowledge. This was not accurate. The Health Department says that parents were made aware of the program and told them that they had the right to “opt-out” if they did not want their child to be allowed to receive contraception at school. Only one to two percent of parents at these schools chose to “opt-out.”
Despite this, the Post insisted the program was controversial and parental authority was being usurped.
Alarmist Approaches to Teen Pregnancy Trumping Efforts to Help Teen Parents Succeed
Last week the latest news about teen pregnancy statistics made quiet headlines: “Teen Pregnancy Rate Drops to Lowest Ever Recorded, CDC Says.” If the rates had increased we would have likely heard more about the news, but the CDC data did in fact confirm that teen pregnancy rates have continued their steady decline across all demographic groups in the United States.
Unfortunately touting these statistics tells only one part of the story. Missing are the statistics that might actually tell us more about how teen parents are doing. I’ve written before about how the focus on teen pregnancy prevention leaves parenting teens in the dark. In addition to feeling the adverse effects of stigma-based prevention programs, many of the resources and much of the funding goes to prevent future teen pregnancies, rather than figuring out how to help current teen parents succeed.
The dropping teen pregnancy rates don’t tell us whether teen parents are surpassing the various hurdles placed in their path to staying out of poverty, getting an education, avoiding health problems. It’s worth pointing out that many of the statistics correlating teen pregnancy and poverty could be blamed on the fact that many of the teens who get pregnant are already at a higher risk for poverty and the other outcomes we see. For example, a recent study linked lower levels of pre-teen literacy with higher likelihood of becoming a teen parent. So when we hear about high school drop out rates and teen parents, there may have already been factors pre-pregnancy that increased the likelihood of not finishing high school (like lower literacy levels).
Some of the teens who get pregnant may have ended up living in poverty anyway, whether they had gotten pregnant or not. That means that resources put toward the social safety net, toward reducing poverty and improving education for all people could also improve the lives of teen parents.
We should be focusing on allocating resources to support all parents — including teens — to ensure the best possible outcomes for their kids.