My turn: Teen pregnancy strongly tied to sexual abuse, not birth-control information

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2006

As assertions fly fast and thick about the consequences of Planned Parenthood coming to Juneau and the assumption by opponents that it will increase the incidence of teen pregnancy, let's insert a note of reality as opposed to conjecture into the discussion. I was a member of the Juneau School Board when the teen health center was proposed. Immediately, dire consequences were predicted by those people who believe that if you talk to kids about birth control, the teen pregnancy rate will skyrocket. (The clinic did open and the dire predictions have proven unfounded.) At that time I had not determined my views on the subject, so I did some research about teen pregnancy. What I discovered was eye opening.

Generally across the board, no matter what one's political stripe is, there is the assumption that teen pregnancy is the consequence of a teenage girl and a teenage boy having sex. However the facts are somewhat different.

A number of studies have documented the connections between child sexual exploitation and abuse and teen pregnancy.

• A 1992 report of a Washington state study of 535 teen mothers revealed that the first pregnancies of 62 percent of the participants were preceded by experiences of molestation, rape or attempted rape. The mean age of their offenders was 27.4.

• The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that more than 40 percent of mothers aged 15 to 17 had sexual partners three to five years older; almost one in five had partners six or more years older. With teen mothers in the 15 to 17 age range, 49.2 percent of the fathers were between ages 20 and 29.

• The National Center for Health Statistics reported that based on 1991 data, almost 70 percent of babies born to teenage mothers were fathered by men 20 or older.

• A 1990 study of births to California teens reported that the younger the adolescent mother, the greater the age gap with her male partner. For example, among mothers aged 11 to 12, the average age of the fathers was nearly 10 years older.

This research establishes that much of young teens' early sexual involvement is unwelcome and often forced. Even where it occurs by mutual consent, many of the victims involved are legally underage, or have not reached the age of consent. Interestingly, there is rarely any consequence for these fathers. The law recognizes the concept of statutory rate, but the prosecution of these sexual predators is rare.

Even when sexual abuse, incest or rape is not the direct cause of pregnancy, the presence of it in a teen's life is contributory to a higher pregnancy rate, because the teen's natural sense of boundaries has been eroded.

In a study by the Center for Adolescent Nursing, University of Minnesota School of Nursing, Minneapolis, sexual abuse was reported by 6 percent of males and 2 percent of females in 1992, and by 9 percent and 22 percent in 1998. Reports of pregnancy involvement were significantly more common among abused adolescents (13 to 26 percent of females and 22 to 61 percent of males, depending on the type of abuse) than among nonabused adolescents (8 to 10 percent). Abused adolescents were more likely than others to report risk behaviors, and teenagers reporting both abuse types had the highest odds of pregnancy involvement and risk behaviors. The differential in the odds of pregnancy involvement and most behaviors was larger between nonabused and abused males than between nonabused and abused females.

Their conclusion was: Teenage pregnancy risk is strongly linked to sexual abuse, especially for males and those who have experienced both incest and nonfamilial abuse. To further reduce the U.S. teenage pregnancy rate, the pregnancy prevention needs of these groups must be adequately addressed.

I invite those who are truly interested in decreasing the teen pregnancy rate to put their energies where it is most useful: in pushing for enforcement of statutory rape and working to decrease child rape, incest and abuse.

• Becky Bear is a resident of Juneau and retired school board member. She is a wife, mother and grandmother.

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