Rise in US teen pregnancies


The second increase in teen pregnancy rates has fuelled the debate over federal funding for sex education programmes, writes ROB STEIN.

THE RATE at which teenage girls in the United States are having babies has risen for a second year in a row, government statistics show, putting one of the nation’s most successful social and public health successes in jeopardy.

The birth rate among 15-19 year olds rose 1.4 per cent from 2006 to 2007, continuing a rise that began a year earlier when the rate jumped 3.4 per cent, reversing what had been a 14-year decline.

Although researchers will have to wait at least another year to see whether a clear trend emerges, the two consecutive increases signal that the long national campaign to reduce teen pregnancies might have stalled, or possibly even reversed.

“We may have reached a tipping point,” says Stephanie Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics, which issued the report.

“It’s hard to know where it’s going to go from here.”

Other experts say the two-year data probably represent a trend and fit with other research showing a stall in the long drop in sexual activity among teens, as well as a decrease in condom use.

“I think it’s a real trend,” says John Santelli, who studies teen sexual behaviour at Columbia University. “It’s a huge disappointment and a huge failure in public policy to see this reverse itself.”

The increase raised concerns across the ideological spectrum and fuelled an intense debate over federal funding for sex education programmes that focus on encouraging abstinence until marriage.

Opponents and proponents are girding for a new round in the long battle over abstinence education funding, which is expected to begin within weeks when President Obama reveals whether he will seek to continue or cut funding for such programmes.

“This is certainly not the time to remove any strategy that is going to provide skills for teens to avoid sex,” says Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association, which recently organised 500 students from across the country to lobby Congress for continued funding.

But opponents say the findings provide new evidence that such programmes are ineffective and that money should be shifted to programmes that include educating young people about contraceptives, which have been shown to be highly effective.

“The United States can no longer afford to fund failed abstinence-only programmes,” says James Wagoner of the group Advocates for Youth. “Sound investments should instead be made in science-based sex education that works.”

Abstinence programmes had been receiving about $176 million (€130 million) in federal funding each year, although Congress cut about $14 million from the current budget.

White House spokesman Reid Cherlin calls the new numbers “highly troubling”.

“President Obama is committed to reducing the number of unintended pregnancies in this country, and we are reviewing these programmes as part of the budget process. The president has supported abstinence programmes if they are part of a comprehensive, age-appropriate and evidence-based effort to reduce teenage pregnancy,” Cherlin says.

The new statistics also show that the total number of US births in 2007 – 4,317,419 – was the highest on record, surpassing the peak “baby boom” year of 1957.

The overall fertility rate also increased by 1 per cent to 69.5 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, the highest since 1990. – ( Los Angeles Times/Washington Post)