Viewpoints

State succeeds with lower teen pregnancy rate

Justin Pace reads along with classmates during a ninth-grade Teen Talk sex education class at Carlmont High School in Belmont last October.
Justin Pace reads along with classmates during a ninth-grade Teen Talk sex education class at Carlmont High School in Belmont last October. Associated Press file

Although we live in a culture of negativity that leads many to believe that things are worse than ever, the data often show otherwise. Crime, for example, is lower than it was a quarter-century ago, though you’d never know it from watching the local news. Access to higher education has never been greater. And the value of the country’s manufacturing output is near an all-time high, having tripled since 1980.

Another underappreciated development is the amazing drop in the number of adolescent pregnancies and births. And it’s a story on which California has led the way.

The latest figures show there were 20.8 births for every 1,000 California girls and women between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2014. That’s an all-time low and less than half the rate in 2000.

The news is not all good. The rate is still much higher among young women of color. And there are wide disparities among California counties, with the Central Valley lagging behind.

But the long and sustained drop in the rate since the early 1990s is worth noting because it’s an example of how education and changing mores can affect behavior, even among a demographic – teenagers – that historically has been one of the most difficult to reach.

The change was no accident. As recently as 1991, California’s teen pregnancy rate was among the nation’s highest. Alarmed state lawmakers and public health officials launched an effort to educate children about sex and its consequences. While abstinence was suggested, “abstinence only” was never the message; the state and counties made contraception available to teens who chose to have sex.

California became a national leader in both sex education and contraception, and the results have been dramatic.

While the number of girls and women ages 15-19 increased by 110,000 between 2000 and 2014, the number of births among that population dropped by 28,000. California’s teen birthrate is now well below the national average and ranks 20th.

Unfortunately, wide gaps still exist within the state. Marin County’s rate of just seven births per 1,000 teenage girls and women is lower than any state in the country. But in Kern County the rate is 45.1. That’s higher than Arkansas, the state with the highest rate.

Much of that disparity has to do with income, ethnicity and education – three factors that travel together and are linked closely to the birthrate. The rate for Hispanics is 31.3 per 1,000 and for blacks it is 24.6, compared to 8.4 for whites and 3.7 for Asian Americans.

Still, just 15 years ago the rate for Hispanics was 77.3 and for blacks it was 59.1. So even among those groups, the progress has been impressive. And the rate of repeat births is also declining.

Public health experts are still debating whether teen pregnancies and births contribute to poverty or are merely its result. But it seems pretty clear that having a child at a very young age makes it more difficult for young women to get the kind of education or training they need for a life of self-sufficiency.

So the drop in teen pregnancies and births is a trend that should be more widely recognized – and celebrated.

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report. He can be contacted at Daniel.weintraub@calhealthreport.org.

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