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The Journal Gazette

The disconnect between sexual culture and teen pregnancy

Teenage pregnancy is in a decline.

“I don't know that we know” why it has declined, said Dr. Deborah McMahan, the Allen County health commissioner, though, like most people who deal with teen pregnancy and its consequences, she can offer educated speculation.

The drop is happening nationwide, not just here. The research firm Demographic Intelligence reports that the number of babies born to teens annually fell by 38.4 percent from 2007 to 2013. And meanwhile, the abortion rate has declined as well.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that the number of births to teenagers 15 to 19 years old fell by 26 percent from 2007 to 2011. (That was about the rate in Indiana.) Teen birth rates fell at least 15 percent for all but two states. Rates fell 30 percent or more in seven states.

The fact is, fewer girls are getting pregnant. That's a good thing. Compared with women aged 20 and older, teenagers are at elevated risk of having babies with low weight, experiencing preterm birth and dying in infancy. And the Centers for Disease Control says those births “are associated with significant public costs, estimated at $10.9 billion annually.” In Indiana, between 1991 and 2010 there have been 214,623 teen births, costing taxpayers $6 billion, according to the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Leigh Kelner, adolescent health coordinator in the maternal and child health division of the state health department, says the main reasons for the decline are that fewer teens are having sex, and those who are are practicing better contraception.

Maybe. A lot of teens are still having sex: 51 percent in Indiana, slightly higher than the national average, though Kelner is certainly right about better contraception. Sarah Kliff on the website Vox wrote: “In 2002, an almost-negligible 0.3 percent of teenagers used IUDs. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, 4.5 percent of women between 15 and 19 were using the device. This could be great news for preventing teen pregnancy, as IUDs are the most effective contraceptive currently available.”

OK. Now what? Whatever society is doing, let's keep doing it. Alas, despite our hopes, there is not one thing to which we can point. As McMahan says, “It's all speculation, to be honest.” She credits, among other things, education and better access to health care for the decline. “Media has a role, highlighting the reality” of teen pregnancy. She cited the MTV reality show “Teen Mom.”

“Kids see more options in their lives than parenthood,” she said, pointing out all the material available to young people in their schools, on the Internet, and in movies and television.

Paradoxically, the decline is taking place in a culture that some observers deplore. “Media encourages kids to be sexualized,” McMahan said. Teenagers are “very casual in their view of sex. It's a disconnect to me” between the dominant culture and the dramatic decline in teen pregnancy.

One conclusion may be that for all the complaints about dancing, song lyrics, gyrating performers and portrayals of sex on TV, they just are not the major influence that some critics, almost all older than the generation they're worried about, think they are.

Another conclusion: Let the young people have their fun, their websites, their idols. Adults can show them, in a nonjudgmental way, the facts of life, the consequences of certain behavior and how to prevent babies. The teenagers seem to get it, and that's something that, when it comes to teenage pregnancy, earlier generations didn't.