Teen Pregnancy Drops, But Why?

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Pregnancy rates among teenagers are at the lowest they've been since the government began recording such data in 1976, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate for 15- to 19-year-old girls in 1997, the most recent year for which data are available, is 206 per 1,000, down almost 20 percent since the peak in 1991.

Evidence of the decreased pregnancy rate follows recent news on falling teen birth rates, which hit a record low in 1999. ("Teen Births Hit a New Low," Youth Today, June).

Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said that while the report's findings were promising, much is left to do. "This morning we celebrate, and this afternoon we get back to work convincing teens that they are not ready to be parents."

Theories abound about why the rate has dropped over the last decade, but almost every opinion touches on contentious questions about the worth of abstinence-only programs. Mary Martha Wilson, acting director of the National Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention (NOAPPP), said that the "AIDS epidemic pushed education and the public into being made aware" of the risks of teenage sex, which has led to "parents talking with their kids and communities getting involved."

But, said Wilson, much of the federal funding for parent involvement and education is being replaced with dollars for abstinence-only programs. "The decrease of funding for parent education programs is not a good thing," she said. "Abstinence-only programs are not comprehensive. They are not what has been proven to work thus far."

Dr. Curtis Stine, executive vice president of Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Tex., disagrees. "Any program with a strong abstinence component has the potential to be effective," Dr. Stine said. "Without [the abstinence message], there is no potential to delay or reduce pregnancies."

Legacy Resource Center Director Tom Klaus, whose Iowa-based group provides prevention education resources and services, said he is pro-abstinence but is "not convinced of the effectiveness of many of these abstinence-only programs. Kids need to know what it is that they are abstaining from. There needs to be a better understanding of everything involved." Klaus said there is a historical tie between low poverty rates and pregnancy rates, and is pessimistic about further reductions in either.

Brown, whose campaign works to straddle the liberal-conservative divide on teen sexuality, credited teens for the record-setting decline, commending them for making "increasingly smart decisions about delaying sex and using contraceptives."

On the down side, both Wilson and Juanita Smith, coordinator of the Topeka, Kans.-based YWCA Teen Pregnancy Prevention Project, expressed concern about rising teen pregnancy rates they see in many Latino communities, although pregnancy rates among Hispanic teens have fallen 5 percent since 1990. Smith fears that because some immigrants' children do not understand English well, they perceive sex education as sex "promotion."

Contact: CDC, (301) 458-4800 or www.cdc.gov/nchs.