Teen pregnancy rates have been on a steady decline in the U.S. since the late 1980s, but teens age 17 to 19 aren’t any less sexually active today than 30 years ago—they’re just more often using contraception.
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 2013 and 2014 shows a decline of 9 percent in the rate of teen pregnancies. A study conducted by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute and Columbia University between 2007 and 2012 found that use of “highly effective” contraception methods—IUDs or implants, the pill, injectables, patches or rings—among 15 to 19-year-old women increased from 38 to 46 percent during that period. (Condom use also shot up from 49 to 55 percent.)
Though there is a decrease in effectiveness of condoms versus the highly effective methods, the use of any contraception greatly decreases one’s risk for unplanned pregnancy. “If a teen uses no method they have an 85 percent chance of getting pregnant [within a year],”says the Guttmacher study’s lead author, Laura Lindberg. “Using anything is way more effective than that 85 percent risk.”
There are various factors that could have contributed to the recent years’ increase in contraceptive use. Studies continue to find that students who receive comprehensive sex education, as opposed to abstinence-only, are significantly less likely to become pregnant as teens. Additionally, medical practices have made it easier for adolescents to obtain hormonal contraceptives in the past decade. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Health Organization both made updates to clinical recommendations in the early 2000’s that lifted requirements for pelvic exams or pap smears to be given to women wishing to obtain hormonal birth control; in 2012, the Affordable Care Act extended insurance coverage for contraception.
Though teen pregnancy decreased across demographic categories in the study, teens of color or who are living in poverty were found to remain at a disproportionally higher risk for pregnancy—a reminder that contraceptive access remains an important issue across the intersection of socioeconomic class and race.
Katy Howell is an editorial intern at Ms. and a PR and Sociology senior at a private liberal arts university in Kentucky. She is the social media coordinator for the web series “Life Noggin” and the founding member of the College Democrats chapter on her campus. When Katy isn’t busy, you can find her crying over how much she loves dogs. She has a Twitter, just so you know.