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Behind the Sharp Decline in Teen Births

The recently-reported decline in teen pregnancy can be linked almost exclusively to improvements in teens' contraceptive use, according to new data from a major government study, the CDC's National Survey of Family Growth.
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The U.S. teen birth rate declined 9 percent between 2009 and 2010 to a record low of 34 births per 1,000 teens aged 15-19. This marks the third straight year in which birth rates declined for this age group, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics. Young adults saw similar declines in birthrates, with a 6 percent decline from 2009 to 2010 among women in their early 20s. Meanwhile, newly released 2008 abortion data from the CDC show that the decline in births is accompanied by a decline in abortions, suggesting that the overall teen pregnancy rate is going down, as well.

This good news can be linked almost exclusively to improvements in teens' contraceptive use, according to new data from another major government study, the CDC's National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). The NSFG interviewed a nationally-representative sample of teens from June 2006 to June 2008, and again from July 2008 to July 2010. Comparing reports between these two time periods shows there was no significant change in the overall proportion of females aged 15-19 who were sexually experienced or engaging in sexual activity. There was, however, a dramatic shift in teen contraceptive use. This encouraging news comes at a time when attacks on contraception are increasing in the political arena.

Guttmacher researchers have found an increase both in teens' use of any contraceptive method at all and in their use of highly effective methods or dual methods. Specifically, hormonal contraceptives were used by 37 percent of sexually active teens in 2006-2008 and by 47 percent in 2008-2010, while use of long-acting reversible contraceptive methods like the IUD increased from 1.4 percent to 4.4 percent. Dual method use -- the use of condoms and hormonal methods simultaneously -- also increased from 16 percent to 23 percent. Additionally, fewer teens reported that they are trying to become pregnant than was the case in years past. In sum, teens are making the decision to be more effective contraceptive users, and their actions appear to be paying off in lower birth rates. Similarly, young women aged 20-24, a group that also experienced substantial declines in birthrates, also increased their use of contraception at last sex.

There are currently no direct data available to tell us why teens are changing their contraceptive practices. However, anecdotal reports indicate that recent changes in medical recommendations that allow teens and young adults to access hormonal contraceptives without a pelvic exam or Pap test have made it easier for them to start -- and continue -- using these methods. Additionally, there has been a change in the medical community's thinking around the use of IUDs; in the past, these long-acting methods were often only recommended for women who had already had children, but there is no medical justification for this limitation, and the method is now seen as a "first-line" option for teens who are sexually active and want to delay childbearing for several years. The increase in dual method use suggests a growing commitment among teens to protect themselves against both unintended pregnancy and STIs. All of these changes are occurring in the context of an economic recession, which may have increased teens' motivation to protect themselves against unwanted childbearing.

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