Teen Pregnancy Rate Hits 40-Year Low

teens pregnancy myths
A pregnant teen. (Image credit: Norman Pogson | Dreamstime)

Teen pregnancies reached their lowest level in the United States in nearly 40 years in 2008, a nonprofit institute said in a report released today (Feb. 8). The research showed that teenage birth and abortion rates were also down, although disparities persisted in the statistics for black, white and Hispanic teens.

Sociologists Kathryn Kost and Stanley Henshaw of the Guttmacher Institute reached their conclusions by pooling and analyzing data from their institute, the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program. The Guttmacher Institute is a nonprofit organization that seeks to advance reproductive health and protect abortion rights.

"The recent declines in teen pregnancy rates are great news," Kost said in a statement. "However, the continued inequities among racial and ethnic minorities are cause for concern. It is time to redouble our efforts to ensure that all teens have access to the information and contraceptive servicesthey need to prevent unwanted pregnancies." [7 Surprising Facts About the Pill]

A study published this month in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine suggests sex education may need to be tailored to the region where it is taught, since sex-ed classes are less effective in conservative states.

Pregnancy, birth and abortion rates decline

According to the report, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate reached its peak in 1990: About 117 of every 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 years of age became pregnant that year. Since then, the teen pregnancy rate has steadily decreased. In 2008, the most recent year with accuate statistics available, the rate was about 68 per 1,000 teens, a 42 percent decline from 1990.

For girls younger than 15, the pregnancy rate fell 62 percent, from 17.5 to 6.6 per 1,000 teens, over the same time span.

The teenage birth and abortion rates also declined over the past two decades. There were 40.2 births per 1,000 teens in 2008, 35 percent lower than the peak rate of 61.8 in 1991. In 2008, the teenage abortion rate reached its lowest point since abortion was legalized in 1973: The rate was 17.8 abortions per 1,000 women.

Although the teen pregnancy rate dropped by 37 percent among Latinas and 48 percent among black Americans since the early 1990s, the rates among black and Hispanic teens remained two to three times as high as that of non-Hispanic white teens, the report said.

The researchers also found vast differences in birth and abortion rates across racial and ethnic groups. In 2008, the birth rates for black and Hispanic teenagers and the abortion rate for Hispanic teenagers were twice that of the rates for non-Hispanic whites. More strikingly, the abortion rate for black teenagers in 2008 was four times the rate for non-Hispanic whites that year.

Better choices

Preliminary data from the CDC suggests that in both 2009 and 2010, the birth rates among teenagers and young adult women were at historic lows. Information is not yet available on the abortion trends over the last few years.

The researchers pointed out that recent studies have solely credited increased contraceptive use to the 1995-2002 decline in the pregnancy rate for 18- and 19-year-olds. For girls ages 15 to 17, 75 percent of the decline was found due to increased contraceptive use, while the other 25 percent was from reduced sexual activity.

Though it appeared today's teens are making the right decisions to prevent unintended pregnancies, that behavior is not guaranteed to continue, the researchers noted.

"Trends in teenage pregnancy, birth and abortion will need to be closely monitored over the coming years to determine how the reproductive behaviors of young women in the United States may be changing," the researchers wrote in their report, which is available on the Guttmacher Institute website. "Further research will be needed to understand the factors that are affecting these trends."

Joseph Castro
Live Science Contributor
Joseph Bennington-Castro is a Hawaii-based contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He holds a master's degree in science journalism from New York University, and a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Hawaii. His work covers all areas of science, from the quirky mating behaviors of different animals, to the drug and alcohol habits of ancient cultures, to new advances in solar cell technology. On a more personal note, Joseph has had a near-obsession with video games for as long as he can remember, and is probably playing a game at this very moment.