The Corner

Politics & Policy

Guttmacher Study Ignores Fine Print on Decline in Teen Pregnancy

Last week, the Guttmacher Institute released a comprehensive analysis of teen-pregnancy rates. It contains detailed historical data on teen pregnancies, teen births, and teen abortions. It also presented teen-pregnancy trends for various racial groups. Additionally, for the first time, Guttmacher presented state-level data on unintended-pregnancy rates among teens. This new study should be a welcome resource for scholars and journalists interested in data on teen pregnancies.

Overall, the news is good. The decline in the teen-pregnancy rate is one of the most unheralded public-policy success stories of the last 25 years. According to the Guttmacher study, the teen-pregnancy rate increased fairly consistently during the 1970s and 1980s, but since 1990, the teen-pregnancy rate has fallen by over 63 percent. Teen-pregnancy rates have decreased among whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and racial disparities in teen-pregnancy rates have diminished. Additionally, since 1990, teen births have fallen by over 56 percent, and teen abortions have fallen by an astounding 74 percent.

While this data is both helpful and encouraging, Guttmacher provides only weak analysis of the decline in teen pregnancies. In the study’s conclusion, the authors discuss only the teen-pregnancy decline from 2007 to 2012 and conclude that the decline was solely the result of contraception use. They cite one study showing increases in the percentage of teens using contraceptives and utilizing highly effective contraceptive methods. Additionally, the authors cite a study that found historically low contraceptive-failure rates among teens between 2006 and 2010. The authors also claim that there was no change in teen sexual activity during the same time frame.

But the data presented in Guttmacher’s analysis clearly shows that teen-pregnancy rates began to decline in the early 1990s — not in 2007. Competent analysis would’ve examined studies going back to the 1990s. Furthermore, very good data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) shows that significant reductions in teen sexual activity have occurred since the late 1980s. For instance, data from the NSFG shows that, between 1988 and 2015, the percentage of teenage boys who had ever had sex fell from 60 percent to 44 percent. During the same time period, the percentage of teenage girls who had ever had sex fell from 51 to 42 percent. The decline in teen sexual activity nicely coincides with the decline in teen-pregnancy rates, and that is worth noting.

Overall, Guttmacher did a fine job publishing detailed data that demonstrates a substantial decline in teen-pregnancy rates. But the group did that data a disservice by failing to even mention reductions in teen sexual activity as a causal factor in this long-term teen-pregnancy decline. This is unsurprising. Up until 2007, Guttmacher was Planned Parenthood’s official research arm, and the group consistently advocates increased federal funding of contraception programs. It is disappointing that, despite its formal separation from Planned Parenthood, the group has continued to present analysis that is both self-serving and superficial.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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