For all America’s health challenges—our sky-high rates of chronic disease, disability and early death—we are making progress on at least one front. The nation’s teen birth rate is falling fast. The 2011 rate was just half the 1991 rate, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and half of that decline occurred after 2007.
“The recent declines in teen childbearing are sustained, widespread, and broad-based,” the agency reports, and they parallel a steady rise in birth-control use among sexually active teens. Over the course of two decades, these trends prevented an estimated 3.6 million births among 15- to 19-year-old girls.
Babies born to teenagers are more likely to experience low birth weight and premature delivery and more likely to die during infancy. And like other public-health problems, this one tends to affect people already facing other disadvantages. The public costs approach $11 billion a year.
The new report shows lingering disparities by race and by region, but rates have declined fastest in the groups at highest risk. As this chart shows, black teens gave birth at 2.7 times the rate of white teens in 1991; the rate among Hispanic teens was 2.4 times that of whites. Among white teens the rate fell by 50% over the next two decades, but among blacks it fell by 60%, and the Hispanic teen birth rate fell by 53%.
Likewise, all but two states (West Virginia and North Dakota) have seen their teen birth rates fall in recent years. The biggest declines were concentrated in the Intermountain West, but rates also fell sharply in four of the six states in the so-called teen birth belt that stretches east from New Mexico to Mississippi.
For all the progress the country has made, it still lags far behind the rest of the developed world in preventing teen pregnancy. American teens give birth at five to 10 times the rate of their peers in Scandinavia and Western Europe—not because they’re more sexually active (they’re not), but because they’re less likely to use reliable contraceptives.
Countless factors affect a teen’s risk of pregnancy, but there’s one obvious way to reduce that risk that researchers have found. This country’s teen pregnancy rate fell by nearly a quarter between 1995 and 2002 alone. What drove the decline? In a 2007 study, researchers found that most of it—86% to be exact—stemmed from increased use of birth control among sexually active teens.