US Teen Birth Rate Falls to Record Low

Megan Brooks

April 06, 2011

April 6, 2011 — Teenage birth rates in the United States have declined markedly in recent years, but remain high, according to federal health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a Vital Signs report published online April 5 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

"Though we have made progress in reducing teen pregnancy over the past 20 years, still far too many teens are having babies," said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH in a press release. "Preventing teen pregnancy can protect the health and quality of life of teenagers, their children, and their families throughout the United States."

According to the latest Vital Signs report, in 2009, the national teenage birth rate was 39.1 births per 1000 girls — a 37% decrease from 61.8 births per 1000 girls in 1991, and the lowest rate ever recorded, the CDC says. Birth rates for black and Hispanic teenage girls were 59.0 and 70.1 births per 1000 girls, respectively, compared with 25.6 for white teenagers.

Nonetheless, in 2009, the CDC says roughly 410,000, or 4% of all female teenagers aged 15 to 19 years, gave birth in the United States. The teenage birth rate in the United States remains 6 to 9 times higher than in developed countries with the lowest birth rates including Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, the agency reports. Even the country with the highest rate of teen pregnancies in Western Europe — the United Kingdom — has a 1.5 times lower rate than the United States. Canada's teenage birth rate is 3 times lower than in the United States. When considering developed countries, only Bulgaria has a slightly higher teenage birth rate than the United States; Romania's rate is comparable.

Paralleling the decline in teenage births, the report shows that fewer US teenagers are having sexual intercourse, and more sexually active students are using some type of contraception.

From 1991 to 2009, the percentage of high school students who said they ever had sexual intercourse fell from 54% to 46%. The percentage of students who said they had sexual intercourse in the past 3 months without using any method of contraception fell from 16% to 12%.

From 1999 to 2009, the percentage of students who reported having sex and using 2 methods of contraception (condoms plus either birth control pills or Depo-Provera [Pfizer]) increased from 5% to 9%. The use of long-acting reversible contraceptives remains rare among teenage girls. Any contraceptive use remains lowest among Hispanic/Latinos and non-Hispanic blacks and among socioeconomically disadvantaged teenagers of all races.

Parents Left Out

The report shows that during the years 2006 and 2008, 65% of teenage girls and 53% of teenage boys received formal sex education that spanned the gamut of "just say no" to details about methods of birth control available. Overall, only 44% of teenage girls and 27% of teenage boys said they spoke to their parents about sex. Among teenage girls and boys who had ever had sex, 20% and 31%, respectively, reported not talking with their parents about sex or contraception.

According to the CDC, teenage childbearing has a high cost emotionally, physically, and financially for the mother, the father, the child, and society. The agency notes that about half of teenage mothers fail to graduate from high school before the age of 22 years, and girls born to teenage mothers are almost one third more likely to become teenage mothers themselves.

Teenage pregnancy and childbirth cost US taxpayers roughly $9 billion each year — approximately $6 billion in lost tax revenue, and nearly $3 billion in public expenditures.

There are a few limitations to the methods of data collection, including reliance on data from self-reports and teenagers in school, and only using data about live births. The report lacks data about pregnancy before age 15 years, which is a small but significant number (5000 births in girls between ages 10 and 14 years) and does not distinguish between intended and unintended births.

Nonetheless, reducing teenage and unintended pregnancy is a key priority for the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC notes. The report concludes by stressing that: "Programs for preventing teen pregnancy should be broad-based and multifaceted. The programs should provide evidence-based sex education, support parental efforts to talk with their children about pregnancy prevention and other aspects of sexual and reproductive health, and ensure that sexually active teens have ready access to contraception that is effective and affordable."

Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. Published online April 5, 2011.

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