WASHINGTON—U.S. teen pregnancy and birth rates have plummeted to all-time lows as more teenagers delay sex, abstain from it, use contraception and use it more effectively. Abortions also are down.
The decline, to the lowest teen birth rates since national tallies began in 1940, is a remarkable personal health reform, sharper than U.S. declines in smoking or increases in seat-belt use.
Counselors who work with teens cite many factors but give much credit to more cautious and assertive girls.
"A lot more of us are making our own sexual decisions. That way, you don't get pushed around by your partner who wants you to do more," said Anna Bialek, 17, of Princeton, N.J. "Of course, that can work both ways."
Whatever the reasons, teen pregnancies and births are down about a third nationwide from their peaks in 1991, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. If the 1991 rates had persisted, about 1.2 million more children would have been born to teen mothers by 2004, Congress' Joint Economic Committee estimated last year.
"It's a big success story," said Dr. John Santelli, a Columbia University public health professor and the lead author of a recent analysis of the decline. He attributes about half the drop to teens saying no to intercourse. The other half, he said, is due to their using contraceptives more often and more efficiently.
This rosy picture has two blemishes. First, the U.S. teen birth rate remains the highest in the industrialized world—twice Canada's, for example, and five times France's. Second, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States are the highest in the industrialized world.
That said, the decline in pregnancy among American teenagers is impressive: In 1990, 116 teens out of every thousand aged 15 to 19 got pregnant, according to the CDC. By 2000, just 85 did. More recent estimates of teen births suggest that the decline continues.
The trend reflects a country that's "grown more conservative sexually and socially," Santelli said.
Abortions among teens dropped 44 percent from the late `80s to 2000, according to the CDC's latest figures.
Researchers don't really know what's making teens more cautious, largely because their main source of data on U.S. teen sex, an elaborate federal survey conducted every seven years, was taken at just the wrong times to pick up fast-changing attitudes in the early 1990s.
But counselors who've worked with teens, especially those who've been in the same settings for years, have some strong hunches about what's been happening. In many cases, statistics back them up.
Among their theories:
_ More assertive girls.
"Condoms used to be a guy thing, a guy's choice, really," said Andrea Aumaitre, 38, who graduated from New Jersey's Camden High School as a teen mother and has been a sex-ed counselor at the inner-city school since 1996. "Now our young ladies say, `I want you to use a condom,' or they carry condoms themselves."
Aumaitre and other Camden counselors said girls, especially African-Americans, were more cautious about sex nowadays because they were more ambitious. "They want to finish school, go to work, go on to college, and they believe pregnancy will get in their way," Aumaitre said.
Interesting numbers: Nationwide, the proportion of African-American girls aged 15 to 17 who said they'd had intercourse fell from three-quarters to just over half from 1991 to 2001.
_ Abstinence is up.
"Kids want to do the right thing, and most of them understand deep down that sexual activity is an adult thing," said Elayne Bennett, who founded the Washington-based national abstinence-only program Best Friends Foundation in 1987. In Bennett's view, abstinence pledges work because they deliver a clear message. The more tolerant approach, which she characterized as "don't do it, but here's how to protect yourself when you do do it," confuses kids, she said.
Terri Gosser, 47, a school counselor known as "the sex lady" since 1992 to Pinelands junior and senior high students in the mostly white rural area around Tuckerton, N.J., said she was seeing more abstinence-pledgers. They tend to be "strong spiritually" and to "have sports and other activities they're interested in that keep them busy," she said.
Bialek, the Princeton teen, said lots of kids who'd taken pledges complained to her that they felt pressured into them, however. She's an editor and reporter at Sex, Etc., a sex education newsletter and Web site aimed at adolescents and published by the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Whatever the reason, the latest CDC survey reported that roughly two-thirds of males aged 15 to 17 had never had intercourse. In 1988, half hadn't.
Interesting numbers: Virginity pledges rarely hold until marriage but typically defer the age of first sex by about 18 months for adolescents 12 to 18, according to a study by Peter Bearman, a Columbia University sociologist, and Hannah Brueckner, a sociologist at Yale.
_ Anxieties over AIDS and other STDs are powerful motivators.
Having multiple partners used to be cool among her South Jersey students, Gosser said, "for guys and girls, too."
That's changed, she said. "Now kids say the players are dirty. They don't mean that they're sluts," Gosser added. "It's said with a hygienic implication."
Ivan Juzang, the founder and president of MEE Productions, a Philadelphia-based provider of sex-education media materials aimed at urban minority teens, sees the same caution but finds a more cynical reason: He's discovered from focus groups in major cities that, for better or worse, urban minority teens don't expect their partners to be faithful or clean.
"Safe sex was a harder sell 10 years ago," he said.
Interesting numbers: Condom use among teens aged 15 to 17 increased almost 30 percent from 1991 to 2001, according to federal surveys. Withdrawal as a means of contraception dropped 35 percent. The number of teens who used no contraception dropped 23 percent.
_ The availability of contraceptives is up.
In her day, the only place where Camden's teens could get condoms easily was at Planned Parenthood, according to Camden High's Aumaitre. "And boys didn't go there; they thought Planned Parenthood was for girls."
New York teens faced roughly the same problem until the early `90s, said Neal Blangiardo, 36, a teen sex counselor at New York's Children's Aid Society, where he's worked for 10 years.
"Now the young men I work with can tell me five or six places they can get free condoms," he added.
Also newly available are longer-term, more popular and more effective contraceptives, such as Depo-Provera and the contraceptive patch, Aumaitre said.
"Our kids contracept better than most adults," Blangiardo said.
Interesting numbers: Roughly a third of black female teens who'd had sex used condoms the last time, according to a sex behavior survey that the CDC released Sept. 15. That compares with a quarter of Hispanic teen girls and a fifth of white teen girls.
_ More parental involvement.
"With all the sex out there today, it's hard NOT to have some kind of conversation about sex with your kids," said Erica Gordon, 33, who's worked with Blangiardo since 1997.
Lots more parents are doing it, Blangiardo said, "because parents can do what counselors can't: They can take their family's values and make them stick with their kids."
Gosser agreed that more parents are seeking help from her to talk about sex with their kids.
Interesting numbers: When Gosser started teaching sex ed, about a quarter of parents wouldn't let their kids participate. Last year, just five of 400 junior high parents refused. None of the 900 high school parents did.
_ The Internet's a factor.
"Kids know there's no better place than the Internet to explore things that are too embarrassing to ask about publicly," according to Gordon, of the Children's Aid Society.
Although many school systems, libraries and parents block "lifestyle" materials that involve sex, teens somehow find their way around them.
"When I go into classrooms now, kids have a lot of information, good and bad, and it's all off the Internet," Gosser said.
Interesting numbers: Of the 11 million adolescents who go online daily, more than a fifth say they've sought information about health topics they find hard to talk about, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project released in July.
For a summary of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest report on teen sex and a link to the full report, go to http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/04news/teens.htm
For more on teen contraception and abortion rates, browse The Alan Guttmacher Institute site, at www.guttmacher.org
For answers to basic questions about abstinence, browse the Abstinence Clearinghouse site at http://www.abstinence.net
To learn more about the effectiveness of abstinence pledges, go to http://www.iserp.columbia.edu/people/faculty(underline)fellows/bearman/virginity.pdf
For a critique by the conservative Heritage Foundation of research on sexually transmitted disease rates among abstinence-pledgers, go to http://www.heritage.org/Research/Welfare/whitepaper06142005-2.cfm
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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