The number of abortions involving Minnesota teenagers has fallen by almost half over the past five years, as advocates on competing sides of the issue have flooded young people with information about sex, birth control and fetal development.
The state recorded 1,229 induced abortions involving women 19 and younger last year, down from 2,137 in 2007, the Minnesota Department of Health said Monday.
The big drop among teenagers drove a 3 percent decline in the overall number of abortions last year. But it also adds to a muddled picture of Minnesota's teens and their attitudes about sex. The state has now reported historic or near-historic lows for teen pregnancies, teen births and teen abortions — but has also reported survey information showing that high schoolers are more sexually active than they were five years ago.
Increased access to birth control, particularly birth control pills for young women, might explain why abortions are down but sex is up, said Judith Kahn, executive director of Teenwise Minnesota, an advocacy group seeking to prevent teen pregnancies. Kahn also credited the increase of "comprehensive" sex ed programs in schools, which teach about birth control and abstinence, but also show teens how unprotected sex could disrupt their life goals.
"We know when young people have a sense of their own future, and that they can get to that future, they make fewer decisions that can get in the way," she said.
The Minnesota numbers roughly mirror trends across the nation, where the teen birthrate has fallen sharply since 1991 and overall abortion rates have fallen sharply since peaking in the early 1980s. A federal study issued last year found that about 60 percent of teenage girls who are sexually active use the most effective forms of contraception, including the pill and the patch, up from fewer than half in the mid-1990s.
In Minnesota, the total number of abortions dropped by 370 last year — from 11,071 to 10,701, according to the state abortion report, which is released July 1 every year. The decline in teen abortions was responsible for about half of that trend.
Advocates on both sides of the abortion issue agreed that the decline is good news, and agreed that it was the result of teens getting more "information" to make decisions about sexual activity and abortions. They disagreed, however, on the nature of the information that persuaded the teens.
The Planned Parenthood chapter covering Minnesota and the Dakotas has seen its educational reach increase from 25,000 people in 2011 to 32,000 people last year. Spokeswoman Jennifer Aulwes particularly credited the organization's "Reach One, Teach One" program for providing information about family planning and birth control to teens who then spread that information to their friends and classmates. (Planned Parenthood is also the state's most active abortion provider, and performed 3,917 abortions last year.)
"When kids are getting information from their peers, they are much more likely to absorb it and change their behavior based on it," Aulwes said.
Bill Poehler of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life argued that today's youth are more "anti-abortion" than their parents — persuaded by new medical technology that has increased understanding about fetal development and fetal pain.
"They're aware this is not just a mass of cells," he said. "It's a human life at its early stages of development."
Poehler also said the number of abortions involving minors — those 17 and younger — has gradually declined since 1981, when the state imposed a parent notification law.
Apart from the annual abortion report, the latest state data on teen behavior is from the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey. It showed that half of high school seniors had had sexual intercourse. That was lower than the 61 percent of seniors who reported in 1992 that they had had sex, but higher than the 46 percent who reported in 2004 that they were sexually active.
Kahn said it's telling that while teen pregnancies and abortions are down, other state reports show that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia are up.
That suggests that young women are relying more on birth control pills, which can prevent pregnancy but not STIs, she noted; student survey data indicates that condom usage has remained level or declined slightly among high schoolers even as sexual activity levels have increased.
"We're still at a point where, every day in Minnesota, 15 adolescents become pregnant," she said. "It's good news [that teen abortions have declined], but we need to remain vigilant in our work."