Contraception Not Responsible for Dropping Teen Births

Opinion   |   Michael New, Ph.D.   |   May 15, 2012   |   10:13AM   |   Washington, DC

Last week, the New York Times’s “Motherlode” blog published a story about the recent decline in the teen-pregnancy rate. Recent reports indicate that the teen-pregnancy rates in the United States are declining, and currently stand at a 30-year low. Not surprisingly, the Times was quick to credit increased contraception use for the decline. In reality, however, the data paints a far more nuanced picture.

The Times article cites a recent CDC study that indicates that the percentage of sexually active teens using the birth control pill has increased since 1995. However, the same study shows percentage of teens using condoms has actually decreased by an even greater amount since that time. Furthermore, the CDC finds the percentage of female teens who never engaged in sexual activity has increased by 16 percent since 1995. Not surprisingly, the Times makes no mention of this.

The Motherlode post also engages in some questionable state-level analysis. The author argues that the five states where minors are most likely to report using birth-control pills have teen birth rates either at or below the national average. However, the author overstates her case. First, the statistics cited by the author indicate nearly one-third of the states do not report any data on teen birth-control use. Second, available data indicate that there is relatively little state-level variance in teen contraceptive use.

The author also argues that five states with the highest teen-pregnancy rates tend to require parental permission for birth control and emphasize abstinence-only education. The author neglects to mention that these states are southern states with above-average poverty rates — and a number of studies find a correlation between poverty and teen births.

Interestingly, state data can also be used to tell a different story. State data demonstrate that pregnant teenagers in red states are far less likely to obtain an abortion than their blue state counterparts. Similarly, the abortion rate in abstinence-friendly red states is lower than the abortion rate in contraceptive-friendly blue states. However, statistics like this seldom appear in the New York Times. Note: Dr. Michael New is a political science professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He is a fellow at Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.