The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:
New data on teenage sexual activity suggests important advances in reducing pregnancies and persuading youths to wait longer before they have sex. The Guttmacher Institute, a leading tracker of pregnancy data, says teen pregnancy rates are at their lowest point since 1972 and have declined 42 percent since the peak year of 1990.
While the national debate has intensified over federal vs. church doctrine on contraception, most of us can agree on the need for teens to wait until adulthood to become parents. Disagreement continues over educating teens: strict abstinence vs. protected sex. In the real world, however, teens need to hear both messages — at home and in the classroom — if the downward trend in pregnancies is to continue.
Data from Guttmacher and other studies indicates that young people — from across racial and ethnic backgrounds — are increasingly getting the message about abstinence and contraception. The national 2008 pregnancy rate, the most recent available, was 67.8 per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19. The national teen abortion rate also dropped to 17.8 per 1,000 females, its lowest rate since 1972.
The teen abortion rate marks a 59 percent decline from the peak year of 1988. Still, 31 percent of teen pregnancies ended in abortion in 2008, according to the Guttmacher report.
Teenage girls who become parents typically find their life course permanently altered for the worse, while taxpayers ultimately absorb the higher costs of supporting them and their children. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about a fourth of teen mothers go on welfare within three years of the child’s birth. Children of teen parents have high prospects of growing up in poverty and repeating the cycle.
Teen mothers have a strong likelihood of leaving high school without graduating. Fewer than 2 percent of teens with a baby will attain a college degree by age 30. According to an Urban Institute study, 80 percent of fathers in teen pregnancy situations do not marry the mothers.
It’s too early to tell how the national statistics track with those for Texas youths, who have consistently ranked among the highest in the U.S. in teen pregnancy rates. Guttmacher says it has not yet compiled all state-by-state comparison data. In 2005, Texas ranked fourth in the nation, with a rate of 88 per 1,000. In 2006, Dallas ranked highest among the nation’s 73 major cities in repeat teen births.
No matter how you look at it, teen pregnancy is a situation to be avoided. So it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure the numbers continue their downward trajectory with a consistent message to teens about the potentially life-altering consequences they face.