Report: Teenage Pregnancy on the Rise Again

After 14 years of steady decline, the birth rate for U.S. teenagers has risen by three percent. Stephanie Ventura, head of the Reproductive Statistics Branch at the Centers for Disease Control, and Brenda Rhodes Miller of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, discusses the recent figures and what parents can do to help prevent teenage pregnancies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to a subject we really have not talked about much in recent years: teen pregnancy. In years passed, pundits, policy makers, regular folks alike were wringing their hands about babies having babies, and then it changed. The teen birthrate in the U.S. plummeted by a third between 1991 in 2005.

But last week, Federal officials reported that that trend has now reversed. The teen birthrate rose by three percent for the first time in 14 years. The increase was the greatest among black teens, which rose 5 percent between 2005 and 2006. Some people are blaming the increase on abstinence-only education. Other people are blaming sex ed programs which encourage the use of contraceptives. So, of course, we wanted to ask those who work directly with the numbers and with teens, so we're pleased to have Stephanie Ventura with us. She's the head of the Reproductive Statistics Branch of the National Center For Health Statistics - and Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the DC Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy. They were kind enough to join me here in the studio.

Thanks so much for coming in, ladies.

Ms. STEPHANIE VENTURA (Chief, Reproductive Statistics Branch of the National Center For Health Statistics): You're welcome. Thank you.

Ms. BRENDA RHODES MILLER (Executive Director, D.C. Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy): Thank you.

MARTIN: Stephanie, this is a one-year increase. Does this one-year increase foreshadow a broader trend?

Ms. VENTURA: It's really too soon to say. It's just one year, as you said, and we would never want to make a trend out of one year. But it is - it's a reversal of a steady decline of 14 years, and that's why it really caught our attention.

MARTIN: Brenda, the drop in the teen pregnancy rate has been considered a major public health success, a major sort of a social policy success in - over the decade. Why do you think the rate dropped, and why do you think it's going back up again?

Ms. MILLER: Well, there are only two reasons that that rate would drop. Either teens weren't having sex, or they were using contraception more consistently. What we really need to know is what motivated them to make either one of those choices. And if we can identify that motivation, we could step up whatever efforts lead to it and increase it so that they're motivated once again to want to avoid pregnancy in the first place.

MARTIN: Stephanie, obviously, this has sparked a debate, which obviously is just going to political overtones. But is there anything in the data that can tell us why the rate is moving in the other direction?

Ms. VENTURA: I think not, but the one thing that I guess, in retrospect, we could see that the last few years of that decline, the 34 percent decline that you mention, had - the decline have slowed down. So the rate of decline was slower. So maybe, that was foreshadowing a kind of a turning point where it would start to increase. But I don't think any of us expected that it'd be an actual increase. And so, you know, it really - it totally took us by surprise.

MARTIN: Is there any - you say, that obviously, we need to study further. Is there anything that can be done other than just sit back and wait?

Ms. VENTURA: Well, I think that, as Brenda said, it's important to look at the programs. I think that it was a major public health success story, the decline over the last 14 years. And one of the things that was special about that -those efforts was, that I think that there were a lot of programs that were designed to meet the needs of particular teenagers - not one-size-fits-all, but trying to look at their kind of a positive youth development model. And I think that we'll probably, you know, we're not into the programs, but Brenda and her colleagues will be looking at what might be fine-tuned to see that we can get back on that decline again.

MARTIN: Stephanie Ventura is in charge of Reproductive Statistics at the National Center For Health Statistics. Brenda Rhodes Miller is the executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. We have to take a short break, but they're going to continue with us to talk more about the rise in the teen birthrate in just a moment.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: a conversation with the widow of Otis Redding on the 40th anniversary of his death. But first, we're going to continue our conversation about teen pregnancy.

Joining us is Stephanie Ventura, head of the Reproductive Statistics Branch of the National Center for Health Statistics and Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Just before the break, I was asking Ms. Ventura about this whole sort of debate about abstinence-only versus, you know, contraceptive, other sex education programs, and was asking whether there's anything in the data that would help us sort of figure out what's going on. So Brenda, I wanted to ask you that -the same question. Do you - I mean, one of the things, obviously, that people are pointing to is the increase in popularity of abstinence-only education programs over the last, say, five or six years. And some people are saying that this reversal is clearly an indication that these programs aren't working. What do you think?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I'd say there's increase funding over the last few years for abstinence-only programs. But in terms of what it really takes to prevent teen pregnancy, we know from the research that the single most important factor is a close, caring relationship with the trustworthy adult.

But adolescents also have to have a plan for their future. They need to get the healthcare they're looking for. School success from an early age is a very important factor, and a sense of belonging. But one thing we don't look at so much with teenagers, although we do with younger children, is that they need safe places to spend time with their friends learning new skills, learning new abilities, figuring out what they want to do with their lives. And so, I think those are the kind of things that really deserve increased funding around the country, because when you invest in young people, you get a pay off. When you don't, you may see, you know, the trend can - this anomaly turn in to a real trend.

MARTIN: Has something changed, though, in the last couple of years that would have affected that environment, the places where kids to go and things of that sort, I mean?

Ms. MILLER: Stephanie and I we're talking about that while we were waiting. And I think at this point, we don't know. And one of the things, I guess, we'll have to do for the next couple of years is watch the data very closely and then look around, what's going on in our communities. We know in Washington, that a Carraro(ph) model just started in ward seven. It starts with fifth graders and it follows kids until they graduate from high school. There are about 40-something of those models…

MARTIN: What does that mean, please, for people that don't…

Ms. MILLER: Oh. It's an after-school program that provides educational support, job club, creative expressions through the arts, healthcare, mental health services. It teaches kids about sexuality, family life education, and it stays with them. It's a family support kind of program - works with the kids, works with the parents, and continues until they graduate from high school. And it shows really tremendous results around the country.

MARTIN: But I guess my question would be, would something like that in place before and it changed? I mean, there's - I guess, what everybody's wondering is that you got this steep decline in this birthrate, and then all of a sudden you see…

Ms. MILLER: Well, you see an uptake.

MARTIN: …the trend go a different way, an uptake, and you think something must have changed. What is it that changed?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I don't know. I don't know if we know something has changed. It just, Stephanie said, the numbers were slowing down. The decline was slowing down, and then we see an increase. I think until you see two or three years of data, that you really can't make any pronouncements about whether something is changed about.

MARTIN: The other thing on that we call in to your attention is the rising teen birth rate. It was highest among non-Hispanic black teens, 5 percent. Any idea as about why that might be? Stephanie?

Ms. VENTURA: Well, that's really a surprise, because the non-Hispanic black teens have had the major increase over the last, you know, 13, 14 years. So that was, you know, very unexpected and we really just don't know. I mean, one thing that we might say is, also point out is that this increases were, you know, non-Hispanic black, but all groups had increases and all teen sub-groups by age, the younger teens as well as the older teens. And, in fact, birthrates for older women increased, too. So this is really an increase in child-bearing by everybody, which is, you know, I think, caught us all by surprise.

MARTIN: Stephanie, I wanted to point out that the reporter - the report finds a 20 percent jump in births among mothers who were single, period.

Ms. VENTURA: Right.

MARTIN: I think, you know, we sort of just looking around your own sort of circle of friends, you think, yeah, okay. That makes sense. But what do you think that means? Is this indicative of just a broader cultural shift?

Ms. VENTURA: Well, that trend actually is not just this one year. We do have data that that's been going on since 2002. It had been flat from '95 to about 2002, and then it started to turn upward. And that's very perplexing. That's -and it's not a teen issue, by the way. Everybody thinks that teens and unmarried mothers are the same. They're not. Only about 23 percent of the unmarried mothers are teenagers now, which is, you know, a relatively small proportion. So this is really being fueled by adult woman.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. And finally, I wanted to ask either of you, thoughts about fathers. You know, we always talk about the mothers in situations like this, but there's any - do we know anything or have any thoughts about what's going on with fathers? Are they supporting this trend? Are they, a part of this - the conversation?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I'm glad you raise that issue, because if don't focus on boys, we're really making a huge mistake. The average teenage girl can have one baby a year, unless it's a multiple birth. The average teenage boy has an unlimited capacity. And we really have to start focusing on boys and encouraging them to delay fatherhood until they can really fulfill that role. And I think that's one place that we really should put increased attention and increased resources.

MARTIN: Is there anything over the last, say 14 years, when we were seeing the decline in the teen birthrate that, Brenda, you can point to that talked about the increased emphasis on fathers? Or do you think that the progress, mainly, was made with mothers?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I think that we saw a period, and I guess Stephanie could give us the data on it, when boy - when condom use increased among boys, largely, as a result, I think, of HIV education.

Ms. VENTURA: Absolutely. You know?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. VENTURA: I think that that's absolutely the case, that there was a turnaround for both boys and girls. But obviously, boys were, you know, energized about this as well because of the STD concerns.

MARTIN: I wonder if because, perhaps there's this myth that - well, HIV/AIDS has become sort of more of a manageable disease among some people, if you have the access to the right sort of healthcare and so forth. But I wonder whether, perhaps, and myth has taken hold that it's more manageable than people think, and so therefore they're more relaxed about it. I don't know. I'm speculating.

Ms. VENTURA: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's, you know, that's something that we should be looking at. I think that about a week ago, there was a report that STD's had been increasing as well. So, this is definitely a whole lot of things that we have to be looking at over the next couple of years.

MARTIN: What else do you want to know? Stephanie, very briefly. What are the questions you want to be asking the next couple days to figure out more about what's going on?

Ms. VENTURA: Well, I would like to look more at the unmarried mothers, because we have data from the National Survey of Family Growth which shows that about 40 percent of the unmarried mothers are in cohabiting relationships. So that's not a legal status, but at least it suggests some kind of support so there's, you know, a two-parent family. So, it's an - I think it's important to know whether these, you know, how stable these relationships are. They typically aren't that stable.

MARTIN: Hmm, interesting.

Ms. VENTURA: But it's something that we should be looking at as well.

MARTIN: So, many, many questions.

Ms. VENTURA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Stephanie Ventura is in charge of Reproductive Statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics. Brenda Rhodes Miller is the executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. They were both kind enough to join me here in the studio in Washington. Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MILLER: Thank you.

Ms. VENTURA: You're welcome. Thank you.

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