While the rate of teen pregnancies in the United States has fallen since the 1990s, the number of young women who become pregnant unintentionally is still higher in the United States than in any other developed nation.
Teen pregnancies and high rates of unintended pregnancies in general (according to the Guttmacher Institute, 51 percent of pregnancies in the general population are unplanned) don't only have health and social repercussions for the women and families who are affected by them. Systems and communities on a larger scale are affected as well.
In 2009, 39.1 out of 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 gave birth. This number does not include the number of teens who get pregnant and have a miscarriage or choose to end their pregnancy (if the choice is available). Because teenagers' bodies are less equipped to carry a birth to term than many adult women's bodies, high teen pregnancy rates are also accompanied by high rates of pre-term birth, more complications during pregnancy/delivery, and a variety of other health concerns for mother and child.
Furthermore, children of teenage mothers are more likely to have behavioral or health issues, not graduate from high school or become teenage parents themselves. The costs associated with some of these complications is estimated to be more than $9 billion. And because many teen parents receive medical assistance from the government through programs like Medicaid, these costs are often shouldered by American taxpayers.
The CDC has taken all of these social and health factors into account in making the prevention of teen pregnancies a priority in their Winnable Battles of Public Health. When women have access to and accurate information about contraception, when providers and patients are equipped with training or tips on discussing sexual health and reproduction, when communities are open and honest with adolescents, listen to their concerns or questions and make an effort to understand their day-to-day realities, rates of teen pregnancies will decrease.
Along with several organizations, agencies and institutions at a variety of social levels and as part of President Obama's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, the CDC is taking many steps to allow these things to happen.
One of the big pushes that the CDC has helped to support pertains to comprehensive sex education. In the past 5 years, several states have passed pieces of legislation (like the Healthy Youth Act) which require all schools to teach appropriate, medically-based lessons on sexual and reproductive health, communication and healthy choices, to students throughout the age groups.
Through research and program analysis, the CDC has helped schools and health organizations design the most effective curricula. This research indicates that teens who undergo comprehensive sex education are less likely than students who are not provided with the same information about these topics to have an unintended pregnancy.
So, from policy and political advocacy to research and program analysis, as well as through online outreach and resource development for providers, parents and teachers, the CDC is making many strides in the effort to reduce rates of teen pregnancy. And while the issue is complex, controversial and requires cooperation from many realms of the community, unlike many of the other battles we are fighting in Public Health, it is one we know how to make positive changes in.
How can you do your part?
1. Get comfortable talking about sex! Whether it is with your partner, your parent or child, your teacher or students, your provider or patients -- as a society we must become more open to discussing the facts of life, the nitty-gritties of how our bodies work. When teens have the facts and know the real consequences of their actions as well as the resources and people they can access if they have questions or concerns, they are far less likely to make risky choices.
2. Find out your state's policy on sex education. Advocate for policies that promote fact-based curricula for every age group. Urge your representatives and school boards to take their personal religious views or political standpoints out of the decisions they make regarding children's education and health.
3. If you are sexually active, learn about the contraceptive options that are available to you! Unintended pregnancy has especially telling consequences among the teenage population, but impacts the life of any woman. Being prepared and knowing the facts are key to prevention efforts and can save women and their families from making difficult decisions.
4. Check out www.plannedparenthood.org, www.advocatesforyouth.org, or the CDC's website on preventing teen pregnancy for more information!
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 2011. “Teen Pregnancy.” Atlanta, Georgia. http://www.cdc.gov/WinnableBattles/TeenPregnancy/index.html
Finer, B. Laurence & Kost, Kathryn. June 2011. “Unintended Pregnancy Rates at State Level” The Guttmacher Institute. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health: Vol 43, No 2.
Reviewed October 31, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg
Edited by Jody Smith