Teen Pregnancy — How Does the U.S. Measure Up?

Last week, as we began our celebration of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, I noted that the U.S. has experienced dramatic decreases in teen pregnancy rates over the past decades. While this is an excellent trend, our teens still lag far behind their peers in other countries.

Take a look for yourself: the U.S. has much higher teen birth rates than other western,
industrialized countries and it doesn’t stop there– teen pregnancy and abortion rates are also much higher in the U.S.

On average, U.S. teens initiate sexual activity around the same age and are no more sexuality active than teens in other countries.

So, what are we, in the U.S. doing wrong?

Or to put a more positive spin on the question, what are other countries doing right?

Several organizations, such as Advocates for Youth, Alan Guttmacher Institute, and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy have looked into this phenomenon and this is what they have discovered.

We know that teens around the world are affected by media messages about sex.  Other countries provide a balanced message that sexuality is a very normal, acceptable part of growing up.  Adults in these countries view young people as assets and expect them to act responsibly. Not only are education and employment assistance available so that young people can become established as adults, there is also strong consensus that sexual activity belongs in a committed relationship, that those who are having sex protect themselves and their partners from pregnancy and STDs, and that childbearing belongs in adulthood.

Sex education is not seen as a separate topic in school and it’s usually integrated across subjects and at all grade levels.  Schools don’t “opt out” of teaching comprehensive sexuality education or choose the abstinence-only approach. And religious groups are not actively involved in trying to deny teens’ access to information and services.  Governments also support consistent, long term public education campaigns and provide easy access to contraceptives and reproductive health services at little or no cost.  Given this support, it’s no surprise that sexually active teens in European and other developed countries have higher rates of consistent and correct contraceptive use than their peers in the U.S.

Finally, parents in European countries recognize and accept teen sexual behavior, particularly for older teens.  They are much more realistic and focused on making sure their teens are safe. Conversations about sexuality are not avoided or limited to “the talk” but are an ongoing, open and honest part of parent-child communication.

So what can we learn from these other countries?  In order for the U.S. to experience the same results as its global partners, we must:

  • Encourage stronger public support and expectations for our youth to make responsible choices as they grow into adulthood
  • Accept that young people do become sexually active and provide them with the comprehensive and medically accurate information and services
  • Provide clear expectations about their responsibility and commitment to prevent early childbearing within their teen relationships.

To hear what European teens and parents say about teen sexuality, watch the video  “Teens & Sex in Europe” from Advocates for Youth.

~ Lynette Johnson, Director, Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program

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