Providing teens with free contraception dramatically reduces their chances of unintended pregnancy, a new study shows.
On average, nearly 16 percent of sexually experienced female teens will get pregnant in a given year, but fewer than 4 percent of the teens who received free contraception did in the new study, published Thursday (Oct. 2) in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The researchers also found that when given a choice of methods, nearly three-quarters of young women in the study chose an intrauterine device (IUD) or hormone implant for birth control. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently endorsed these long-acting forms of birth control as the best contraceptive methods for adolescents and teens.
"IUDs and implants are only used by probably less than 5 percent of adolescents nationwide," said Dr. Jeffrey Peipert of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who co-authored the new study. "We were surprised at how commonly selected these methods were — that was shocking to us." [Birth Control Quiz: Test Your Contraception Knowledge]
More than 9,000 women ages 14 to 45 participated in the study, known as the Contraceptive CHOICE Project. Participants received counseling about contraceptives that emphasized the long-acting methods, which have been proven to be most effective. The women were then given their contraceptive of choice, free of charge, and followed for two to three years.
The new report focuses on the 1,404 study participants who were 15 to 19 years old, 72 percent of whom chose an IUD or implant. On average, during the study period, the yearly rate of pregnancy was 3.4 percent, versus 15.9 percent among this age group in the general population.
During the study, an average of 1.9 percent of the study participants gave birth yearly, versus 9.4 percent of teens in the general population. The yearly rate of abortions was less than 1 percent for teens in the study, versus 4 percent for teens overall.
Access to long-acting contraceptive methods in the United States is "spotty" at best, Peipert told Live Science. Many women — and even many doctors — don't know that these methods are safe for teens and young women, he said, and many health care providers aren't trained in how to use them.
Another big barrier is cost, Peipert said. "These methods can cost up to $700 for the device itself, and then insertion costs can easily put it over $1,000," he said.
Although this is much pricier than getting condoms at the drugstore or buying a packet of birth control pills, the facts are that long-acting methods can be used for several years, that they are more effective and that women are more likely to keep using them. All of this means that they wind up being more cost-effective.
Nevertheless, "if you have to pay out of pocket, it's almost prohibitive for many women," Peipert said.
"Our hope is that the Affordable Care Act will allow more and more women to have access to these methods," he added. However, the law allows insurers to opt out of covering contraception, or to only cover certain methods.
Critics may say that providing contraception for teens encourages sexual activity," Peipert acknowledged.
But much research has shown that teens aren't more likely to have sex if contraception is made available to them, he said.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.