Heres the bad news: American teenagers are more likely to have sex at an earlier age and to have more partners than kids in other Western countries, and they have higher rates of pregnancy, childbearing, and abortion. In fact, the U.S. teen birthrate is five times that of France or Sweden. But the good news is that, high as this number is, it is better than it was. During the past decade, teen births declined 20 percent, all but reversing a 24 percent jump between 1986 and 1991. Meanwhile, Western European teen birthrates held steady.
What should we do?
According to a new report infelicitously called Can More Progress Be Made? and published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a well-known research and advocacy organization that focuses on reproductive matters, Americans need to offer more societal acceptance of sexual activity of young people, more sex ed, and easy access to contraceptives and other reproductive health services. This is the same advice the organization has been offering since its founding back in the Age of Aquarius.
But consider the two explanations most observers give for the drop in U.S. teen pregnancy. First, fewer teenagers are having sex, because of a growing cultural consensus in America that says teens are better off delaying going all the wayexactly contrary to Guttmachers societal acceptance of teen sex attitude. Public policy, especially abstinence education, has reinforced that new consensus.
The second reason most researchers give is that those teens who still do have sexeven after their abstinence-education classesare using birth control more reliably, perhaps in part because they have gotten the condom message in their sex-ed classes, and in part because welfare reform has sent the message that having babies on the public dime is no longer okay. But in any case, sexually active teens are already doing what the Guttmacher Institute thinks it will take lots more sex ed and condom giveaways to teach them to do. No wonder the institutes report soft-pedals the good news about the falling birthrate.
Here is one more group of experts whose message can only make things worse.