Guttmacher Misleads on Reasons for Teen Pregnancy Decline

by Michael J. New

Last month, the Guttmacher Institute released a study on teen pregnancy rates. The news is good. The report finds that teen pregnancy rates are reaching historic lows. Overall, in the past 20 years the teen pregnancy rate has fallen by 50 percent and the teen abortion rate has decreased by almost two thirds. Additionally, the study found significant long-term declines in the teen pregnancy rate among whites, blacks, and Hispanics. All 50 states report reductions in teen pregnancy rates. These reductions are an unheralded public-policy success story.

That said, Guttmacher’s analysis leaves much to be desired. Unsurprisingly, Guttmacher credits increases in contraception use for the reduction in the teen pregnancy rate. However, their report never once mentions reductions in teen sexual activity. This is misleading. Academic studies sympathetic to contraception — specifically John Santelli’s 2007 American Journal of Public Health study found reductions in teen sexual activity have played a significant role in the minor abortion decline.

Additionally, there is a growing body of research showing consistent declines in teen sexual activity over the past 20 years. For instance, writing for FiveThirtyEight this spring, Mona Chalabi cites separate studies conducted by the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Both studies find that the number of sexually active teenagers has declined anywhere from seven to ten percentage points since the early 1990s. Both surveys also find significant declines in the percentage of teenagers who have had multiple sexual partners.

In their analysis, Guttmacher does cite a study showing that teens are more likely to use long-acting reversible contraceptives. However that study only analyzed 18- and 19-year-olds and only covered the years 2007 to 2009. Other research casts doubt on the extent to which increases in the use of long-acting reversible contraceptives are responsible for the long-term decline in the teen pregnancy rate. A new study authored by my Lozier Institute colleague Susan Wills finds that long-acting reversible contraceptives are used by a very small percentage of teenagers. Furthermore, these long-acting reversible contraceptives tend to have a high discontinuance rate.

Not surprisingly, Guttmacher also fails to mention that pro-life parental-involvement laws might be playing a role in the teen abortion decline. Over 20 states have enacted such laws since the early 1990s. A 2009 Guttmacher literature review identified 17 academic studies that found that these laws lower abortion rates for minors. Unfortunately, Guttmacher’s entire analysis on both the teen abortion decline and the teen pregnancy decline focuses exclusively on contraceptive use. Guttmacher’s unwillingness to properly credit other factors such as reductions in teen sexual activity and pro-life laws shows once again that they place ideology ahead of sound analysis and scholarship.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on twitter @Michael_J_New