After Years of Decline, Teen Pregnancy and Births Back on the Rise

Sarah Brown

Why are we seeing an uptick in teen pregnancy and teen births after years of decline? More sex and less contraception, the policy wars of the past 8 years and the failure to fund effective programs are among the reasons behind this reversal in trends.

There is
reason to be concerned on this 8th National Day to Prevent Teen
Pregnancy.  The extraordinary decline in
teen pregnancy and childbearing – one of the nation’s preeminent success stories
of the past two decades – is in danger of being reversed.  Cue sober music.

From the
early 1990s, until 2007, the teen pregnancy rate in the United States plummeted
38 percent and the teen birth rate declined by about one-third.  State and local level trends mirrored national
trends almost everywhere: Over the past decade, we’ve seen declining rates of
teen pregnancy in all 50 states and among all racial and ethnic groups-extraordinary
progress on an issue many once considered intractable.

However,
the most recent news on this front has not been as positive. After 14 straight
years of declines, the national teen birth rate increased 5 percent between
2005 and 2007 and many states are reporting statistically significant increases
in their respective rates of early childbearing as well. 

Given this,
it is not surprising that one of the questions we are most frequently asked at
the National Campaign is:  Why? Why has the encouraging progress on teen
childbearing begun drifting in the wrong direction?  Based on the limited data that are available,
the observations of those who work directly with teens nationwide, and
researchers who study the issue, there are several clues that help explain the
recent increase:

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

More sex, less contraception.  Declines
in sexual activity and increases in contraceptive use among teens – the two
factors that drove the steep decreases in the teen pregnancy and birth rates
beginning in the early 1990s – have apparently stalled out.  In fact, although the changes have been small
and not statistically significant, sexual activity increased and contraceptive
use by sexually-active teens decreased among high school students between 2005
and 2007.

Less concern about HIV/AIDS.  Observers
have long believed that concern about HIV/AIDS has helped make young people – in
particular, young men – more cautious about sexual activity and more vigilant
about contraceptive use, and that these concerns contributed to the decline in
teen pregnancies and births over many years. 
Now, however, there is evidence to suggest that concern among young
people about HIV/AIDS is less pronounced. For example, a recent survey of those ages 18-29 who say they are
personally very concerned about becoming infected with HIV declined from 30
percent in 1997 to 17 percent now.  And
according to the CDC, the proportion of high school students who say they have
ever been taught about HIV/AIDS has decreased from a high of 92 percent in 1997
to 83 percent in 2007.

Reaching older teens.  Recent
National Campaign analyses suggest that nearly three quarters of the recent increase
in teen births can be attributed to older teens (age 18 to 19) rather than
younger teens (age 15 to 17).  Efforts to
prevent teen pregnancy have largely ignored older teens and recent increases in
the teen birth rate underscore the need for additional, more creative
interventions that reach older teens.  In
short, high school sex education may not "carry forward" into non-high school
years.

Changes in the Makeup of the Teen Population.  The overall increase in the national teen
birth rate is due, in large part, to increases in the birth rate among teens of
all racial and ethnic groups. Even so, a National Campaign analysis suggests
that about a quarter of the three percent increase in the teen birth rate
between 2005 and 2006 may be due to changes in the racial and ethnic makeup of
the teen population overall.

Limited information about contraception.  Abstinence should be stressed as the
first and best option for teens.  It is
developmentally appropriate, widely supported by parents and teens, and the
only certain way to prevent too-early pregnancy and parenthood.  But we also know that those teens who are having sex and are not using
contraception are the ones who get pregnant. 
The nation’s emphasis on abstinence-only education in recent years may
not have provided young people with adequate information about contraception or
enough encouragement for sexually active teens to use contraception
consistently and carefully.  Every time.

Complacency and prevention fatigue. 
The years of good news about
teen pregnancy may have led to complacency on the part of practitioners and
parents.  It may also have let policymakers
and other funders turn their attention to other issues and away from preventing
teen pregnancy.  An informal survey by the
National Campaign conducted in December 2008 found that in half of the 20
states that responded, teen pregnancy prevention programs received cuts in
funding from public and/or private sources. 
Others reported flat funding. This situation may worsen as the full
effects of the current economic downturn become apparent.

An "anything goes" culture.  What
about the role of prevailing social norms and popular culture?  At present four in ten births to U.S. women
are to unmarried women; for those in their early 20’s, it is six in ten.  One in five teens say they have
electronically sent or posted a nude or semi-nude image of themselves; and the
high-profile teen pregnancies of Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears were
largely greeted as the latest in a long line of celebrity baby bumps-mildly
interesting but, at the end of the day, no big deal.  Perhaps such trends and factors help shape
the social script for teens, suggesting that getting pregnant and starting a
family in the teen years when you are single and may not have even finished
high school is simply not that big a deal.

So what to
do?  Of course we need better sex
education for young people.  Of course we
need more on-the-case parents who are helping their children figure out
relationships, sex, family planning and more. 
Of course access to and affordability of contraceptive services remain
critically important.

In addition
to all of these things, my sense is that young people-in fact all of  us-would also profit from some good,
old-fashioned "straight talk."  For
example, when was the last time any of us heard any major public figure say
things like:

  • Babies need adult parents.
  • "If it happens, it happens" is no way to start a
    family. And "I just never really thought
    about it" isn’t either.
  • Babies don’t cement relationships; they often put great stress on
    them. Be sure you are in a solid
    relationship before you begin a family.
  • Sex has meaning, risks and consequences. It’s not a casual
    activity. Take it seriously.
  • Babies don’t give unconditional love; they demand it from the
    adults around them.
  • Children do best when they are raised by parents who are committed
    to each other and to years of devoted parenting.
  • To boys and men: Making babies doesn’t make you a man. Being
    a devoted partner and father may.
  • To girls: Sex won’t make him yours and a baby won’t make him stay.
  • Personal responsibility and parental
    responsibility mean it’s not just about "me" the adult – it’s also about what’s
    in the best interest of children, communities and future generations.

In short, getting pregnant or causing pregnancy, having
babies, and starting families are perhaps the most important things we ever do,
with generational effects.  These major
steps need to be thought about carefully, not stumbled into.  We think and
talk about so many less important things all the time: what’s for dinner, March
Madness brackets, what movie to see this weekend… Surely the event of when
to become a parent, with whom and under what circumstances deserves at least
the same amount of time and attention.   

P.S.  On this day
focused on teen pregnancy, let’s not forget the unacceptably high rates of
unplanned pregnancy among women of all ages-particularly single
20-somethings.  At present, fully 7 in 10
pregnancies among single women in their 20s are unplanned.  We can and must do better.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.