Teen-Pregnancy Drop Pinned to Contraceptives

Teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. have declined remarkably since 1990. A new study suggests that while a reduction in sexual activity was partly responsible, contraceptive use was a more significant factor.

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MIKE PRESCA, host:

This is DAY To DAY. I'm Mike Pesca.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand with our Sex and Drugs segment.

First the sex, the teen pregnancy rate has been dropping dramatically over the last 10 years. New research has identified what's causing a one-third reduction in the number of teens getting pregnant.

Michelle Trudeau reports.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU: How to explain this remarkable decrease in teen pregnancy? To answer that, researchers from Columbia University and the Guttmacher Institute in New York tapped into the government's massive databank on teenagers, looking at the sexual behavior and contraceptive use of teenage girls, ages 15 to 19, at two different points in time, 1995 and 2002.

Lead researcher John Santelli describes the results.

Dr. JOHN SANTELLI (Professor, Columbia University): Over all, we found that about 85 percent of the decline in pregnancy was due to contraceptive use, and about 15 percent was due to fewer teenagers having sex.

TRUDEAU: And the relative contributions of less sex or more contraceptive use varied by age. So for the younger girls, abstinence played a bigger role than for the group as a whole, but not for the older girls.

Dr. SANTELLI: So among the 18 to 19 year olds, all of the change in pregnancy rates could be attributed to improved contraceptive use, and none of it to a change in sexual activity.

TRUDEAU: And looking at the statistics another way, the researchers found that none use of contraception declined markedly. Back in 1995, 34 percent of girls said they used no contraceptive during the last intercourse. But by 2002, the figure had dropped by almost half. Also importantly, Santelli adds, is that more girls delayed their first intercourse.

Dr. SANTELLI: So across the board, any way you looked at it, we were seeing improvement.

TRUDEAU: Sarah Brown directs the nonprofit, nonpartisan, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Ms. SARAH BROWN (Director, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy): Clearly, the young people are getting this message that you either don't have sex, which some of them are doing, or you must use contraception every time you do have sex. Those are the only two ways to avoid pregnancy. So for all the demonization that people direct at teens, they in fact are leading the way in more responsible sexual behavior.

TRUDEAU: Identifying the reasons for the decline in teen pregnancy is an important undertaking, adds Brown, because it'll clarify what to emphasize in sex education programs for teenagers: abstinence or contraception.

Ms. BROWN: I think the key concept is that both of these forces of less sex and more contraception are at work; although, in most analyses, the majority explanation is indeed more contraception.

TRUDEAU: Wade Horne is the assistant secretary for Children and Families, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has notably promoted abstinence education. But Wade Horne is not surprised by the findings of this study.

Mr. WADE HORNE (Assistant Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services): What it shows is that for those who are sexually active, there's an increase use in contraception and that's a good thing. But also, as the authors acknowledge, the other thing that is contributing to the decline in pregnancy rates among teenagers is a delay in the initiation of intercourse, which is also a good thing.

TRUDEAU: Horne says that delaying sexual intercourse and making contraceptives available for sexually active teens are complimentary ingredients for preventing teen pregnancies.

Mr. HORNE: And so it's not a matter of either/or. It seems to me it's a matter of both. We need to have both effective prevention strategies, which we believe means abstinence education, but also effective intervention strategies, which we believe means access to contraceptive services.

TRUDEAU: This new research appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

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