AECF: When Teens Have Sex Daytona Beach FL

The care and protection of children is, first and foremost, a family concern. But when teenagers have babies, the consequences are felt throughout society. Children born to teenage parents are more likely to be of low birth-weight and to suffer from inadequate health care, more likely to leave high school without graduating, and more likely to be poor, thus perpetuating a cycle of unrealized potential.

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AECF: When Teens Have Sex

©1999 The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Reprinted with permission from the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Section 1: Foreword Section 2: Overview Preventing Teen Pregnancy: Strategies That Work Myths and Facts about Teens and Sex Section 3: National Maps Section 4: State and U.S. Profiles Section 5: References and Resources Section 6: News


Overview

The care and protection of children is, first and foremost, a family concern. But when teenagers have babies, the consequences are felt throughout society. Children born to teenage parents are more likely to be of low birth-weight and to suffer from inadequate health care, more likely to leave high school without graduating, and more likely to be poor, thus perpetuating a cycle of unrealized potential.1

Experts estimate that the combination of lost tax revenues and increased spending on public assistance, child health care, foster care, and the criminal justice system totals about $7 billion annually for births to teens.

Despite a 20-year low in the teen pregnancy rate and an impressive decline in the teen birth rate, the United States still has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any industrialized country. About 40 percent of American women become pregnant before the age of 20.2 The result is about 1 million pregnancies each year among women ages 15 to 19. About half of those pregnancies end in births, often to young women and men who lack the financial and emotional resources to care adequately for their children. And when parents are financially and emotionally unprepared, their children are more likely to be cared for either by other relatives, such as grandparents, or by taxpayers through public assistance.

Experts estimate that the combination of lost tax revenues and increased spending on public assistance, child health care, foster care, and the criminal justice system totals about $7 billion annually for births to teens.3 In Kids Having Kids: A Robin Hood Foundation Special Report on the Costs of Adolescent Childbearing, researchers note that during her first 13 years of parenthood, the average adolescent mother receives AFDC and food stamps valued at just over $1,400 annually.4

Hopeful Signs of Change

Recent declines in the pregnancy and birth rates are encouraging. The rate of pregnancies has dropped from a peak of 117 for every 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19 in 1990, to 101 in 1995. That 14 percent drop brought the rate to its lowest level since 1975. Similarly, the teen birth rate has dropped from 62 for every 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19 in 1991, to 54 in 1996—a 12 percent decline. During that 5-year period, the National Center for Health Statistics reports that the actual number of births to teens dropped by 5 percent, but is still close to half a million each year.

As reported in the pages that follow, every state and the District of Columbia experienced some decline in their teen birth rate between 1991 and 1996, from a 6 percent drop in Arkansas to a 29 percent drop in Alaska. In addition, the teen birth rate decreased among all races. The steepest decline—21 percent—occurred among black teenagers, whose rate of births is now the lowest in 40 years. Another hopeful sign is that nationally, the birth rate among 15- to 17-year-olds declined faster than that for 18- and 19-year-olds.

What's behind the overall drop in these rates? Some might speculate that the reduction in the teen birth rate results from an increase in the abortion rate. But the teen abortion rate (number of abortions per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19) fell from 41 in 1990 to 30 in 1995.

Rather than trying to deal with a pregnancy after the fact, more teenagers seem to be trying to prevent pregnancies. Researchers cite two main reasons for the overall drop in both pregnancy and birth rates: Fewer teens are having sex, and among those who are, more are using contraceptives. In a special analysis of the falling pregnancy and birth rates, Patricia Donovan of the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) noted that researchers attribute the recent trends in teen sexual activity and contraceptive use to a variety of factors:

  • greater emphasis on delaying sexual activity;
  • more responsible attitudes among teenagers about casual sex and out-of-wedlock childbearing;
  • increased fear of sexually transmitted diseases, especially Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome;
  • the growing popularity of long-lasting contraceptive methods, such as the implant (Norplant) and the injectable (Depo-Provera) options, and possibly more consistent or correct use of other contraceptive methods; and
  • a stronger economy, with better job prospects for young people.5

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, conducted under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirms that fewer teens are having sex. In 1997, 48 percent of the nation's high school students reported ever having had sex, compared to 54 percent in 1990. The overall rate masks important differences among subgroups. In 1997, 44 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 52 percent of Hispanics, and 73 percent of non-Hispanic blacks reported ever having had sex (see Table 1). But only 35 percent of all respondents said that they had been sexually active in the previous 3 months.

Reported rates of sexual activity dropped more dramatically among male teens than among female teens. Between 1990 and 1997, the percent of females who reported ever having had sex remained at 48 percent, but the rate among young men dropped from 61 percent to 49 percent. The rate declined most steeply among non-Hispanic white males, dropping from 56 percent to 43 percent. Among non-Hispanic black males the rate went from 88 percent to 80 percent and among Hispanic males, from 63 percent to 58 percent.

Table 1
Percent of High School Students Who Reported Ever Having Had Sex: 1990 and 1997

1990

1997 TOTAL

54%

48%
GENDER

Male

61%

49% Female

48%

48%
RACE/ETHNICITY

Non-Hispanic White

52%

44% Non-Hispanic Black

72%

73% Hispanic

53%

52%
GRADE

9th

40%

38% 10th

48%

43% 11th

57%

50% 12th

72%

61%
Source: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.

As researchers from the National Center for Health Statistics and from the Urban Institute have noted, those teens who are having sex are more likely to use condoms. In 1990, 45 percent of teens who reported having had sex during the previous 3 months said that they had used a condom. By 1997, the figure was up to 57 percent. The rate among males jumped from 49 percent in 1990 to 63 percent in 1997, and the rate among females during the same period went from 40 percent to 51 percent.6

Reasons for Continued Alarm: Demographic Concerns

At best, the downward trends in teen sexual activity call for cautious optimism. No one can predict whether the rates will continue to go down or pop back up again. So, it would be a mistake to think, merely on the basis of these hopeful signs, that the problem of teen pregnancy is close to being solved.

For starters, the teen birth rate is higher than it was 10 years ago. It's also worth re-emphasizing that the U.S. rates are still the highest in the developed world (see Chart 1). The next closest nation, the United Kingdom, has a teen birth rate that is only about half that of the United States. And the high rate of childbearing among American teens is widespread. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that in 26 states and the District of Columbia, at least 1 out of every 10 teen females ages 15 to 19 became pregnant in 1992 (the latest year for which these figures are available). In every state, the pregnancy rate was higher than that of the United Kingdom. Equally troublesome is the fact that nationally, 22 percent of births were to teens ages 15 to 19 who already had a child.

Demographic trends confirm that the recent good news may be short-lived. As the children of the "baby boomlet" swell the ranks of American teenagers over the next few years, the absolute number of babies born to teenagers is likely to increase even if the birth rate remains constant. In fact, using the 1996 rate to project the number of births to women ages 15 to 19 in the year 2005 suggests a 14 percent increase in the number of babies born to teen mothers.

The majority of those births are likely to be out of wedlock, as were 76 percent of births to women ages 15 to 19 throughout the United States in 1996. Among the states, the percent of births that occurred to unmarried teens ranged from 58 percent in Utah to 92 percent in Rhode Island and 97 percent in the District of Columbia in 1996. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a private, non-partisan effort launched in 1996, the vast majority of unmarried teen mothers choose to keep their children rather than put them up for adoption.7

Today’s teen parents face very different circumstances than their counterparts of 30 years ago. During the 1960s, more than two-thirds of births to 15- to 19-year-olds occurred within marriage, even when conception occurred beforehand.8 At that time, marriage was viewed as an ultimate life goal, offering the financial and social stability that was considered essential for having and raising children. By the late 1980s, however, less than 40 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds who gave birth were married.9

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