What’s Causing High Teen Birth Rates?

Last year, we got the news that teen pregnancy rates have risen for the first time since 1991.  But last week, figures were also released on a state-by-state break down of the teen birth rate.

Mississippi now has the nation’s highest teen birth rate, displacing Texas and New Mexico for that lamentable title, a new federal report says.

Mississippi’s rate was more than 60 percent higher than the national average in 2006, according to new state statistics released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The teen birth rate for that year in Texas and New Mexico was more than 50 percent higher.

The three states have large proportions of black and Hispanic teenagers — groups that traditionally have higher birth rates, experts noted.

I find a few things of note, here.  First of all, this whole article (and seemingly the study itself) mentions only the birth rate, not the pregnancy rate.  In other words, we’re ruling out all pregnancies that are not carried to term, either because of miscarriage or abortion.  And of course, I’m interested in those missing abortion figures.  How do teen pregnancy rates stack up overall, versus the birth rates?  Well, these numbers don’t give us that answer.  But I’m willing to bet the relevant that data would tell us something interesting about a less-than-ideal but still effective way to reduce some of those teen births we’re so concerned about.

That’s not to say that I think we should be forcing teens into abortions, or even necessarily encouraging them over the option of giving birth (for anyone).  What I’m saying is that it should be an option, and in most (though not all) of these states with the high birth rates, it’s not.

What I find interesting is that this article goes straight to the “it must be those black and Latina girls” explanation.  Certainly, these groups do have higher rates of teen pregnancy and teen births, but the problem is that we so rarely look at the reason — assuming in a racist fashion that it has to do with some kind of inherent promiscuity and lack of morality rather than social and economic circumstances enforced by a racist and classist society.

The fact is that while the states with the highest teen birth rates have high black and Latina/o populations, many other states on the really cool interactive map on the page of the original article, which I encourage you to check out, do as well.  Like my state, New York, which has a rather low teen birth rate.

So I notice something entirely separate from race (though it would be foolish to take it out of the equation entirely, and I don’t plan to).  I notice red and blue parts of the map.  And by and large, the blue states have the lower teen birth rates, and the red states have the higher ones. (Though again, not entirely — New Mexico, for example, usually turns out quite purple, and red North Dakota’s birth rate is quite low.)

Coincidence?  Perhaps, but I think most likely not.

Try though the anti-choice and abstinence-only proponents might to shift the blame, we know that red states tend to have the most anti-choice policies and the highest proportions of abstinence-only education; and now we know that they also have some of the highest teen birth rates.  We know that Mississippi has some of the most anti-choice policies in the nation, and is hot on South Dakota’s heels in that regard.  We already know that countries with comprehensive sex education have much lower rates of teen pregnancy than the U.S. We also know that part of being a red state is being anti-social services — and that yes, those red states with higher minority populations also tend to have higher teen birth rates than those with overwhelmingly white populations.

Could it be that the racial component in this equation is not how many black and Latina/o people there are  in a state’s population, but how the states in question treat those populations?  And why the hell are we looking at race so automatically with regards to this situation, anyway, rather than automatically looking at what’s being done to prevent pregnancy?  Surely, we should be looking at how the differences in policy affect oppressed groups of people in unique ways, but how is that even remotely what’s being done here?

The fact that people are commenting on demographics rather than policy means that I can’t come up with concrete answers here.  I can only make very highly educated guesses based on the data available.  The limitations of the data available, I think, shows how far we have to go to fix a problem that so few are interested in looking at honestly. And it obscures information about policies that have otherwise been proven to work, and those that have been proven not to.

0 thoughts on “What’s Causing High Teen Birth Rates?

  1. SunlessNick

    The fact that people are commenting on demographics rather than policy means that I can’t come up with concrete answers here.

    Other than the implications of refusing to discuss it, which you address very well.

  2. Rob

    The coefficient of correlation (determined using Excel’s CORREL function) between the percentage of the vote John McCain got in the recent election and the teen birth rate is 0.56. This basically means that there is a linear relationship between how red a state (this is the independent variable) is and its teen birth rate (the dependent variable), and that 56% of the the teen birth rate is accounted for by how red the state is. The remaining 44% is unaccounted for by how red the state is and should be attributed to other factors. Also, just because there is a correlation does not mean that one causes the other (for example, some other factor might cause both).

  3. MomTFH

    Not surprisingly, I made a lot of the same comments you did about this story when I wrote about it. I even linked to the 2004 election map.

    I think the three pages spent on the racial and ethnic analysis and one sentence spent on abstinence only education failing was frankly racist. The Campaign’s own numbers show that the high birth rate brown girls were responsible for less than 25% of the increase. So, the statistically insignificant portion. So, why does all of their analysis seem to focus on it? And not on increasing contraceptive costs, decreasing contraceptive use, and failing abstinence only sex ed?

  4. MomTFH

    Rob, look at the 2004 election. These birth rates are from 2005 and 2006, so the 2004 election is much more relevant, and much more closely associated.

  5. The Quilter

    I am the mother of two teenagers and a pre teen. When I was a young teenager I was given sex ed in health class. We learned all about birth control. Many girls in my class ended up pregnant at 15 years old. This is not a rant against sex ed. I am all in favour of giving kids all the sexual education we can and teaching them about birth control. I think a large part of the problem lies in the fact that birth control is not considered “sexy”. We don’t teach people that birth control is a natural part of the sexual process. Instead we give the message, that it is messy and takes precious time away from romantic moments.

    When AIDS first came to national attention, the gay community did a excellent job of teaching the members of its community the importance of protection. They wrote instructional literature about protection. They wrote erotic stories where protection was a part of the sex act. As a result STDs of all sorts decreased dramatically in the gay community.

    We really need to take a page from their book and teach our kids that protection is necessary and teach them that is it a natural part of human sex. Our kids face not only unwanted pregnancies. They face STDs.

  6. Pingback: What is the Future of Abstinence-Only Sex Education? : The Curvature

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