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Laura Stepp

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Bringing Down the Teen Birth Rate Is Like Dieting, but Harder

Posted: 04/09/10 12:17 PM ET

News this week that the birth rate is declining among teens was welcome indeed. But the explanation that it may have something to do with the ailing U.S. economy?

Puleeze.

How many 16-, 17- or 18-year-olds do you know who, as the t-shirts and jeans are coming off would stop and say, "Oh, wait. I just read that household debt in this country exceeds income. I (or you) better put on a condom."

Four out of five teen pregnancies are unplanned, so the economic rationale just doesn't work. Pregnancy prevention at that age is complicated, and we're only beginning to realize how much so. In fact, it's not out of the question to ask if the birth rate is about as low as it can go.

From the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, the teen birth rate dropped dramatically. After a period of stagnation, the rate began dropping again in 1991. However, it stalled in 2003 and hasn't changed much since.

We worried when births to teens and young adults crept up slightly in 2006 and 2007 and now applaud the 2 percent decrease reported for 2008 (4% for 18- to 19-year-olds). That decrease brought us to 41.5 births per 1,000 teens -- virtually no change since 2003 when the rate was 41.6 births. (The highest rate of any industrialized country, by the way.)

A friend suggests that bringing down the teen birth rate is like dieting. In the early weeks, a new dieter is excited and frequently drops a respectable amount of weight.

Then comes the hard part: not giving in to that one-little-slice-of-cake-won't-hurt-me reasoning, for example. The biggest obstacle is not becoming discouraged by the yo-yo phenomenon of weight loss and gain that often accompanies the lengthy diet -- and closely resembles the teen birth rate pattern of the last few years.

Of course, we should be pleased that the teen birth rate dipped in 2008 and, according to early reports, may fall again slightly in '09. But who's to say it won't bounce up again? Making significant, lasting social change -- particularly in behavior that is deeply personal -- is even more difficult than losing weight and keeping it off.

The more we listen to young people, the more we realize this. Late last year, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy surveyed unmarried 18- to 29-year-olds for a report called The Fog Zone. In an answer to one question, nine out of 10 said they knew all they needed to know to prevent pregnancy.

Yet, in an answer to another question, two out of three said they knew little or nothing about birth control pills. One out of three knew little or nothing about condoms. More than half had not heard of the birth control implant, Implanon.

And more than one out of four of the young women -- and two out of five men -- said it was at least slightly likely they would have unprotected sex in the next three months.

Clearly, sex education must be improved and expanded to new audiences. Reliable contraceptive methods must be easier to obtain, more affordable and marketed in new ways.

But we also need to accept the fact that keeping young people from having babies before they're ready, like keeping weight off, is a forever task.

(The writer is a senior media fellow at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy)