Teen Pregnancy

September 28, 2011

Currently, approximately 15 million girls under the age of 20 in the world have a child each year. Estimates are that 20-60% of these pregnancies in developing countries are mistimed or unwanted. In the united States, the percent of teenage pregnancies that are unintended is estimated at 78%. The rates of teen pregnancy are not equivalent across societies. Rates of adolescent pregnancy vary by a factor of almost 10 from as low as 12 pregnancies per year per 1,000 adolescents in the Netherlands to rates of more than 100 adolescents per year per 1,000 in the Russian Federation. The rates of women having a child before age 20 are higher in the united States compared to similar countries. For example, 22% of women report having a child before age 20 in the united States, compared to 15% in Great Britain and 11% in Canada. These differences are even greater when comparing birth rates among younger teenagers. When one controls for poverty and ethnicity, some, but not all, of this difference disappears.

In the early 1990s, over 1 million teenagers aged 15-19 became pregnant each year in the United States. This figure represents a peak of increasing rates of teen pregnancy through the 1980s and early 1990s. In the latter part of the 1990s through the first part of the new century, rates have begun to decline. Now it is estimated that just below 900,000 teenagers become pregnant each year. Reasons cited for the decline over the past decade include increased formal sex education programs, stabilization in the proportion of teenagers having sex at an early age, improved communication between child and parent, and improved contraceptive use. Similar trends are found in other Western countries, suggesting that similar social forces may play a role.

Older teenagers (i.e., 18- to 19-year-olds) have higher rates of birth than do younger teens aged 15-17 years old. Eighteen- to nineteen-year-olds make up over 60% of the births. Furthermore, rates of pregnancy across racial groups are not equal. In 1996, the rates among 15- to 19-year-olds for white non-Hispanic girls were 66 per 1,000, 179 per 1,000 for African American girls, and 165 per 1,000 for Hispanic girls.

Teenage pregnancy was not recognized as a national problem until the 1970s. Reasons include that the number of adolescent mothers increased dramatically when the baby boomers reached their teenage years. In addition, while birth rates were relatively high prior to this time, it was during the 1970s when the traditional trajectory for a pregnant adolescent changed, meaning that a pregnant adolescent did not necessarily get married and form a traditional family unit. For example, during the 1950s, almost 70% of first births were to married adolescents. In contrast, in 1997, 78% of adolescent mothers were unmarried. In addition, the majority of adolescents who give birth are of low socioeconomic status.

These changes have resulted in large economic consequences. In 1990, the government spent over 25 billion dollars for health and social services for adolescent mothers and their children. It has been estimated that the cost for adolescent childbearing to taxpayers in 1996 exceeded that of delayed childbearing by 7 billion dollars. In addition to the economic disadvantages, adolescent pregnancy can also result in negative social consequences. When teens give birth, they are less likely to finish school and are more likely to have large families and be single parents. Moreover, children born to mothers aged 15-17 have poorer health including lower cognitive development and higher rates of behavior problems, as well as worse educational outcomes. Children born to adolescent mothers are also more likely to become teen parents themselves when compared to children born to older mothers. Furthermore, they are less likely to grow up in a home with fathers. Boys of adolescent mothers are almost three times more likely to engage in criminal behavior and be sent to prison compared to sons of older moms. Of course, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of poverty from those of teen childbearing. Poverty has for a long time been thought of as the consequence of teenage childbearing, however, these effects may be overstated in that poverty is also a catalyst for teenage childbearing.

In part because of these consequences, several different movements or activities have been implemented to combat teen pregnancy. First and foremost, there has been an increase in education programs. Along with individual instruction, efforts have been made to involve parents and families in educational programming as well as to have multicomponent prevention programs (i.e., schoolwide activities, media campaigns). In addition, there has been an increased effort to provide contraception to adolescents via family planning services and school-based health, such as HIV prevention education. While the focus of such programs is to prevent HIV infection, the methods through which to achieve this (i.e., condom use, abstinence) also result in decreased teenage pregnancy. Furthermore, Section 510 was added to Title V of the Social Security Act in 1996 which allocated $50 million a year in programming for abstinence education over several years. Finally, programs that focus on youth development generally, and education and life opportunities specifically have been implemented to encourage adolescents to delay childbearing.

See Also: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, Adolescence, Birth control, Condoms, Pregnancy, Sexually transmitted diseases

Suggested Reading

  • Darroch, J. E., Singh, S., & Frost, J. J. (2001). Differences in teenage pregnancy rates among five developed countries: The roles of sexual activity and contraceptive use. Family Planning Perspectives, 33(6), 244-250.
  • Kirby, D. (1999). Reflections on two decades of research on teen sexual behavior and pregnancy. Journal of School Health, 69(3), 89-94.
  • Kirby, D. (2001). Emerging answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
  • Miller, F. C. (2000). Impact of adolescent pregnancy as we approach the new millennium. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 13(1), 5-8.
  • Singh, S., & Darroch, J. E. (2000). Adolescent pregnancy and child-bearing: Levels and trends in developed countries. Family Planning Perspectives, 32(1), 14-23.


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