Judging from Miley Cyrus’ shameful twerking on the MTV Music Awards show, a viewer might think that display of sexuality represents the attitude of teenagers today. And from that it wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that the teen birth rate is still going up.
Fortunately, both impressions are false. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the teen birth rate in 2012 plummeted to its lowest point in history. Or, at least in the 73 years government has been tracking it.
Teenagers, it seems, are behaving more like Taylor Swift.
The U.S. average for all teens in the 15 to 19 age group dipped 6 percent from 2011 to 2012, down to 29.4 births per 1,000 teens. In 1945, when federal agencies first started collecting data, it was 51.1 per 1,000.
Conservatives who oppose sex education other than abstinence programs often point to the so-called wholesome days of the 1950s. But the birth rate reached an all-time high in 1957 at 93.6 births per 1,000 teens. That’s more than three times what it is today.
Thurston County’s teen birth rate at 22.9 per 1,000 in 2011 is lower than the statewide average of 25.0 per 1,000, which is lower than the national number. Washington’s teen birth rate declined almost 40 percent from 2007 to 2011.
Related studies show teens self-reported sexual activity has not declined and that the number of teens seeking abortions has not increased. So what is responsible for this positive trend?
Experts attribute the decline to the science-based sex education programs offered in most states. When teens are offered a variety of complementary options – including abstinence, but not limited to it – it results in teens having fewer sexual partners and the regular use of contraception.
Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, says sex education is no longer based on ideological viewpoints.
In California, the teen birth rate dropped dramatically over a 10-year period, from 70 births per 1,000 teens in 1991 to 28 in 2011. The plunge is credited to statewide sex education programs that inform teens about the existence of contraception and specifics about how to use it.
Washington’s Healthy Youth Act requires public schools to provide comprehensive sex education programs that are appropriate for students of all age, gender, race, sexual orientation and disability status, and must be medically and scientifically accurate.
Abstinence might not be taught to the exclusion of other options, including instruction on FDA-approved contraceptives and other disease prevention methods.
While the U.S. average teen birth rate is going down, it remains high in the conservative red states. The 2011 birth rate increased in Texas. There are, however, encouraging reports that many abstinence-only states are quietly adjusting their programs.
Despite all of this progress, the United States still lags other countries. Canada’s teen birth rate is 13 per 1,000 teens, and it’s only slightly higher throughout Western Europe.
States like Washington and California are leading the way, and the lagging states are starting to understand our success. When we give teens specific information that is culturally relevant, and arm them with the means to stay safe, they will more often than not do the right thing.