A study out last week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that half of teens who experienced an unintended pregnancy were not using birth control even though they did not want to get pregnant.
Researchers analyzed data from the 2004-2008 Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) which collects state-specific data on women’s attitude and experiences before, during, and shortly after a pregnancy. PRAMS, which is used in 37 states, identifies unintended pregnancies with the question: “Thinking back to just before you got pregnant with your new baby, how did you feel about becoming pregnant?” Participants who didn’t want to be pregnant at that time (either because they never wanted to be pregnant or because they wanted to be pregnant later) were classified as having an unintended pregnancy. For this study, the researchers looked at data from nearly 5,000 teenage girls in 19 states who gave birth after unintended pregnancies between 2004 and 2008.
Researchers looked at these teens self-reported contraception use. The results show that approximately half of these teens (50.1 percent) were not using contraception at all when they became pregnant. When pressed for why they were not using contraception if they didn’t want to become pregnant, 13 percent said they had trouble accessing it and 31.3 percent said they did not believe they could get pregnant at the time. The survey did not ask any further questions on this issue so it’s not clear why teens thought they were not at risk for pregnancy.
Half of teens, however, were using contraceptive methods when they became pregnant. Specifically, 21 percent were using “highly effective methods” of contraception (which includes the pill, the patch, the shot, the vaginal ring, or an IUD), 24 percent were using a “moderately effective method” (which includes condoms), and 5.1 percent were using the least effective methods (which includes rhythm methods and withdrawal as well as diaphragms, cervical caps, and sponges).
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This data, which represents one of the first times that teen parents who did not intend to become pregnant were surveyed separately, gives us a lot of information and suggests we have a lot of work to do when it comes to educating teens.
First it’s clear that too many teens are not using contraception. Even one of the study’s co-authors admitted to being alarmed: “I think what surprised us was the extent to which they were not using contraception, said Lorrie Gavin.” The 31 percent of teens who said they didn’t think they could get pregnant, suggests that teens need a much better understanding of their risk of unintended pregnancy and most notably need to understand that there are few moments in time when it is truly “safe” to engage in unprotected sex.
It is also disturbing that 50 percent of teens were using contraception when they became pregnant. Even diaphragms, which the CDC classifies as among the least effective methods, can be 94 percent effective if used consistently and correctly. Hormonal methods, used correctly, can be over 99 percent effective. And condoms, which can be 98 percent effective, also provide protection against sexually transmitted diseases. So clearly, in addition to helping teens understand their real risk of pregnancy and the importance of using contraception consistently, we must also help them understand how to use contraceptive correctly.