American Teens Have Highest Birth, Pregnancy Rate

Compared with adolescents in other wealthy Western nations, US teens have the highest birth rate, lowest contraceptive use, least ease of access to reproductive health services and least social support, according to researchers.

“It is reasonable for us to expect that we can have a much lower teen birth and pregnancy rate in the US than we have,” said study lead author Jacqueline Darroch. “Other countries have shown that is possible.”

Between 1998 and 2011, Darroch and her colleagues at the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute conducted a study comparing sexual and reproductive behavior among teens in Sweden, France, Great Britain, Canada and the US.

The researchers conclude that while sexual activity among teens was similar across the countries, the US uniquely lacked many established support structures that make it easy for teens in the four other nations to get reproductive healthcare.

At a teleconference Wednesday afternoon in New York, Darroch and her team reported that:

— US teen pregnancy, birth and abortion rates are much higher than those in any of the other countries, despite marked drops over the last decade. US teen birthrates are double those in Great Britain and Canada and five times as high as those in Sweden and France.

— While American teens tend to have shorter and more intermittent relationships and are slightly more likely to become sexually active before the age of 15, sexual activity is relatively similar in the five countries and cannot explain the pregnancy rate differences.

— Only 40% of US teens use oral contraceptives, compared with up to 70% in the other countries.

— American teens are more likely to be exposed to messages that discourage sex, while other nations are more accepting of teenage sexual relationships. There are also societal expectations in these countries that adolescents who engage in sex do so in “committed and monogamous” relationships and use contraceptives.

— American teens lack both family-planning support and the free, heavily subsidized, and easy-to-get contraceptive devices routinely provided in the universal health coverage programs in the other four countries.

“The other countries have more support and accepting attitudes about sexuality in general,” Darroch told Reuters Health. “They are giving clear and more consistent messages for guidance into responsible behavior among teens–via sexual education, within families, and in society’s overall support for parenting.”

Darroch suggested that the findings point to a need for the US to move away from chastising teens about the dangers of sex and towards helping them understand how to better negotiate the world of reproduction and intimate relationships.

“In the US we lecture young people but leave them on their own as to how to get family-planning services,” she said. “In the other countries there is more of an emphasis on trying to help everyone live healthy and productive lives by being responsible when sexually active.”