Rosenblum: Surprisingly sharp decline in teen birthrates worth cheering

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2012 - 8:51 PM

Recent news about teen birthrates had one staff member at Teenwise Minnesota going back to check her calculations. "That can't be right," she thought.

But it was right.

The popularity of television shows "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant" notwithstanding, the reality from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that fewer babies were born to teenagers in 2010 than in any year since 1946. That's the year statistics were first calculated.

The U.S. teen birthrate in 2010 was 34 births per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19, a 44-percent drop from 1991, according to the CDC last week. Birthrates were at a record low for the youngest teens. Minnesota looked even better, with 22.5 births per 1,000 in 2010.

The news was happily eye-opening even for those in the trenches.

"We were quite surprised by how much the rates went down -- nearly 8 percent in one year," said Judith Kahn, executive director of Teenwise, a statewide resource on adolescent sexual health and parenting (www.teenwisemn.org). Kahn got a peek at state data in February, ahead of the national news that confirmed it.

President Sarah Stoesz of the Minnesota chapter of Planned Parenthood had a similar reaction. "We work closely with teens across the state and we know that they want to make good choices," Stoesz said. "But I was a little surprised by the dramatic drop. It's very heartening that, after years and years of working with teenagers, we're beginning to see the payoff."

Now let's stay the course.

There's nothing ambiguous about this heartening trend. While sex among teens has remained steady or declined, those who are sexually active are using birth control more than ever, often dual methods such as birth control pills and condoms (the latter suggesting that the message about sexually transmitted infections also is being heard).

In addition, teen girls no longer are required to have a Pap smear or pelvic exam before getting birth control.

"Of course we want teens to have physical exams, but we don't want to place barriers on contraception," Stoesz said. "There's sometimes a sense that teens are an irresponsible lot, but they do care about their futures."

Comprehensive sex education programs that support both abstinence and the use of condoms and contraceptives for sexually active teens also are deterring teens from having sex, or helping them make smart choices when they do.

Still, it's important to note that not all of our teenagers are faring well. Stoesz points to a "shameful degree of disparity" between white teens and teens of color in Minnesota in terms of pregnancy rates. Planned Parenthood is taking to heart these barriers to access as it develops outreach programs.

One promising example is Planned Parenthood's peer-education program, modeled after similar outreach in Seattle.

Teens from diverse communities are trained in healthy sexuality, then spend up to a year speaking to peers as "experts" in their schools. The program has already reached 25,000 teenagers.

"Kids listen to other kids," Stoesz said. "They're more likely to make responsible choices."

Kahn, at Teenwise, said another message is resonating with teens: It's important for them to create a picture of their future.

"Most successful programs do talk about sex, but in the context of broader development," Kahn said. "It's essential that young people know they do matter in this world. They have something to contribute, and pregnancy is going to get in the way of that. They're saying, 'I'm going somewhere and I'm not interested in having my dreams deferred.' "

That sentiment was supported by several high school students approached after the CDC study was published.

"I think people are finally realizing how teen pregnancy is not glamorous, and this is not a good decision," said Meredith Cocker, a senior at Eastview High School in Apple Valley. "I want to be a psychologist when I grow up and I know I'm not ready for motherhood."

"In '16 and Pregnant,' they had to sacrifice something outside their youth," said Ashley London, also a senior. "It really takes away from experiencing life."

Senior Laura Gordon "was raised in a family that teaches that teen pregnancy is not OK. I don't want to ruin my future, but especially not someone else's."

Gordon makes another important point. Study after study confirms that teenagers still turn to parents or other trusted adults to help them make good decisions around sex. We might use this recent news as a way into an important discussion about choices and realities and our feelings around this hot-button topic.

But some things don't change. We'll likely do best if we keep the conversation calm and non-judgmental and broad enough to encompass not just sex, but all kinds of healthy relationships.

"Teenagers are very, very sensitive to being judged," Stoesz said. "As a mother myself, I know that my kids respond better when they know they are respcted."

Madeline Szempruch, a senior at Eastview High School, contributed to this column. Maddie is participating in School District 196's Partnerships with Professionals mentor program.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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