Teenage Pregnancies: Growing Pains

SOME blame demography, others the recession. It might have something to with gender roles, or the steady stream of mixed messages about being a teenage mum. Perhaps sexually transmitted infections are not the deterrent they once were. Or maybe everyone is suffering from a touch of “prevention fatigue”.
On one point, however, experts agree: when it comes to teenage births, the United States is backsliding. Between 1991 and 2005 the teenage birth rate declined by 34%, according to the National Centre for Health Statistics. Between 2005 and 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, it crept up 5%.
Teenage births are nothing new and in 1960, pre-Pill, the rate in America was more than double what it is today. It is still well below its early-1990s bubble, but experts are getting worried about the trend line.
Consider Texas. The state requires only that public schools emphasise abstinence, not that they forsake all other approaches. Any district could choose to be more comprehensive. But few do. Last year the Texas Freedom Network, a religious-freedom watchdog, gathered curricular materials from the state’s public-school districts. Their findings, published earlier this year, are disturbing. Fully 94% of the districts took the abstinence-only approach. Those pamphlets and brochures that bothered to discuss contraceptives were often full of errors, or deliberately misleading.
The materials also traded on shame and fear. Across the state teenagers were warned that premarital sex could lead to divorce, suicide, poverty and a disappointed God. One district staged a skit about a young couple on their honeymoon. The husband presented his bride with a beautiful wrapped present that he had been saving for years. Her gift for him was in tatters.
This approach does not seem to be working. Texas has the third-highest rate of teenage births, after Mississippi and New Mexico. Dallas has the highest rate of repeat teenage births in the country, 28%, according to a September report from Child Trends, and several other Texas cities are in the top ten. In a nice illustration of Texan conservatism, girls under 18 have to get parental consent for prescription contraceptives, even if they already have a child.
Abstinence-only education makes a convenient scapegoat. But attacking it is a bit of a distraction. Many states and school districts have already abandoned it in favour of a more comprehensive approach. More will, since federal funding for one abstinence-only programme was ended in June. Barack Obama apparently does not want to renew abstinence-only funding, though last month the Senate Finance Committee, hashing out its health-care bill, approved an amendment restoring such funds.
Abstinence aside, experts suggest a more holistic approach. Latina teenagers, for example, have a considerably higher birth rate than any other group, even though they have similar rates of sexual activity. Silvia Henriquez, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, reckons that access is the problem. Latina teenagers are less likely to have health-care coverage for contraceptives, and are more likely to lack transport to the free clinics in their cities.

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