Amid the cultural panic of the “rampant” sexuality of American youth (hi, Miley Cyrus), the MTV-fueled obsession with the tribulations of young motherhood, and the current media fixation on millennial “hookup culture,” you could be excused for imagining today’s teens are living in some kind of hypersexual whirlwind of poor choices.
The reality, however, is quite different: a new report released last week by the National Center for Health Statistics reveals that the U.S. teen birth rate has hit a historic low, falling an impressive 6% from 2011 to 2012. The current rate is the lowest in the country since 1940, when the numbers where first collected by the government, and is down for all ethnic and racial groups. After years of steady declines, the rate now stands at approximately 30 births per 1,000 teenagers — half of what it was in 1991.
So what’s different about the sexual choices of today’s teens versus those of 10 or 20 years ago? There aren’t less young people having sex. And, though the religious right would implore you to believe so, there aren’t more teen abortions being performed. Experts are in agreement about the answer: birth control is more widely available, and the expansion of comprehensive sex education is leading to young people making better decisions about their health.
Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy calls the decline in the teen birth rate “one of the nation's great success stories of the past two decades.” He told MSNBC: "I think the general belief is that teen pregnancy is too difficult a problem and that there's nothing that can be done. But this report shows that significant progress can and has been made on a very challenging social problem that many once considered both unsolvable and inevitable."
The report substantiates what reproductive justice activists, health experts, and educators have been screaming for decades: age-appropriate sex ed, with information about prevention methods, improves the lives and sexual decision-making capabilities of young people. Knowledge is power and comprehensive sex education allows young people to take control of their health.
Beyond illustrating the importance of continuing to invest in widespread sexual health education for young people, the findings of the study shed light on how out-of-touch conservative politicians continue to be with American attitudes concerning sex ed. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the National Education Association all endorse comprehensive sex ed programs.
Though the Obama administration has invested funds in preventing teen pregnancy, anti-choice legislators continue to oppose measures to improve contraception use despite longstanding evidence that progressive approaches to sex education correlate to lower unwanted pregnancy rates. Amanda Marcotte at Slate argues that, in 2008, the mere existence of Bristol Palin proved that conservatives didn’t even believe their own story about abstinence-only programs. She writes, “It's hard to sell kids on the idea to avoid contraception when the results of that advice are on stage at the Republican convention.” It should come at no surprise that the states that push abstinence-only programs have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country.
Though the report shows significant progress, the United States still has a long way to go in combating teen pregnancy, as we still have the highest rate in the developed world. According to a UN report, the teen birth rate in Japan is 4.9 per 1,000 and in the Netherlands, it's 5.3 — about six times lower than in the United States. It is clear that efforts to reduce the teen birth rate, support family planning policies, and move away from programs that shame sexuality are working and that they empower young people. In order for true reproductive health progress to be made, these issues must continue to be at the forefront of American policy initiatives in the coming years.