In 1976, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that the rate of pregnancy for 15- to 19-year-olds was 101.4 per 1,000 adolescents. This rate peaked in 1990, at 116.8 pregnancies per 1,000 adolescents. This means that, in 1990, 11.7 percent of U.S. teenagers were pregnant, compared to 7.6 percent in 2002. Overall, about three-quarters of a million teens become pregnant over a one-year period, and approximately 8 in 10 of these pregnancies are unintended. Between 5 and 6 out of 10 of these pregnancies end in birth, while about 3 in 10 end in abortion, and the rest end in spontaneous miscarriage.
Pregnancy rates have historically been higher among racial and ethnic minority teens than among white teens. For example, in 1990, the pregnancy rate for non-Hispanic white teens was 86.8 per 1,000 adolescents. In contrast, it was more than 2.5 times as high for non-Hispanic blacks (at 232.7) and nearly twice as high for Hispanics (at 167.4). Since 1990, rates have fallen for all groups; however, the rate for non-Hispanic blacks is still more than 2.5 times higher than for whites (138.9 vs. 49.0); and the rate for Hispanics, which has not declined as quickly, is similarly high (135.2).
U.S. teen pregnancy rates have historically been higher than those for other developed countries. For example, research conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute shows that, in the mid-1990s, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden had teen pregnancy rates in the range of 20-25 per 1,000 adolescents. Also, Canada and England and Wales had rates in the range of 45 per 1,000 adolescents. Part of the reason for higher pregnancy rates in the United States is thought to be lower levels of contraceptive use among teenagers in the United States, perhaps due to cultural norms and greater restrictions on access.
Teen birth rates followed a pattern similar to that of pregnancy rates. However, after falling 34 percent between 1991 and 2005, in 2006 birth rates for this age group rose by 3 percent. Trends by race and Hispanic origin varied somewhat: 5 percent for non-Hispanic black teens, 2 percent for Hispanic teens, 3 percent for non-Hispanic white teenagers, and 4 percent for Native American teens, with no change for Asian teens. Race/ethnic differences in the probability of having a first birth by age 20 are also significant; in 2006, 22 percent of non-Hispanic white teens had their first birth under age 20, compared to 50 percent of non-Hispanic black teens and 65 percent of Hispanics.
Even when the rate of teen births declined, the proportion of all teen births that occurred to unmarried teens increased significantly. For example, according to NCHS statistics, in 1960 the percentage of teen births that were nonmarital was 14.8; this increased to 40.3 percent in 1976 and to 84.4 percent by 2006. This trend is due to a drop in the likelihood that young women marry during their teens (in connection with a pregnancy or not), as well as a drop in the birth rate for married teenagers. Also, although a high proportion of teen births are nonmarital, teens do not account for the majority of all births to unmarried women. In 2000, 72 percent of nonmarital births occurred to women ages 20 and older.
Finally, similar to pregnancy rates, research conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute shows that the U.S. teen birth rate is high compared to those of other developed countries. In the mid-1990s, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland had rates of under 10 per 1,000 adolescents, while Canada and England and Wales had rates of 24.2 and 28.5, respectively. In contrast, the rate for the United States was 54.4.
Consequences of Teen Motherhood
To what extent should we be concerned about the relatively high rates of teen childbearing in the United States? Early research on the consequences of teen childbearing suggested that adolescents who gave birth were less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to have low earnings as an adult, and less likely to marry than women who delayed childbearing. However, these studies did not fully account for the fact that young women who bore children early were more likely to be disadvantaged to begin with than those who did not. As a result, it was not clear whether poor outcomes in adulthood among teen mothers stemmed from prior disadvantages, or whether they were, at least in part, a result of the childbearing itself.
More recent research shows that when the disadvantaged backgrounds of adolescent mothers are more fully accounted for, the negative effects of early child-bearing are substantially smaller and in some cases erased. Thus, poor outcomes in adulthood appear to be more the result of the social and economic disadvantages of teen mothers than the result of the early childbearing. Put another way, the new research implies that delaying childbearing among these young women would not result in increased educational attainment or adult earnings or a higher likelihood of marrying. However, researchers have not yet fully investigated whether family income levels moderate the long-term impacts of teen births.
What about the children of teen mothers? Some have speculated that teen mothers may lack parenting skills and provide less than adequate home environments for their children, resulting in lower cognitive skills and more behavioral problems for their children when compared to those of older mothers. Indeed, early research showed that, on average, children of teen mothers score lower on measures of cognitive and socioemotional development, and are at higher risk of poor school achievement, than the children of older mothers. However, later research, which more thoroughly controlled for the background disadvantages of teen mothers, showed that these background factors explained the lower cognitive and socioemotional scores, at least among children through the pre-and early teen years. Fewer studies have been conducted on the outcomes of older children of teen mothers. While some research shows that children of teen mothers may be less likely to graduate from high school, or more likely to be incarcerated, it is not yet clear whether these differences remain when fully accounting for the background characteristics of teen mothers.
Overall, the accumulation of research evidence suggests that teen childbearing does not have the substantial, deleterious consequences for mothers and their children that it was once thought to have. In addition, rates of teen pregnancy and births have fallen significantly in the past three decades. Despite this, many continue to view teen motherhood as a significant social problem. Forty years ago, concerns about teen pregnancy first arose in concert with concern over the increasing proportion of children born out of wedlock, particularly among poor African Americans. Since that time, rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing have increased for all groups, and it is likely that religious and moral opposition to nonmarital childbearing—as well as entrenched beliefs regarding the primacy of the two-parent household for the well-being of children— will continue to fuel public concern about, and efforts to reduce, teen (now largely nonmarital) childbearing. In addition, as some sociologists argue, the continued preoccupation of Americans with teenage pregnancy and parenting might also be explained by American adults’ attitudes toward, and discomfort with, teenage and premarital sexual activity and contraceptive use.
- Abma, Joyce C., G. M. Martinez, William D. Mosher, and B. S. Dawson. 2004. “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2002.” Vital Health Statistics 23(24). Retrieved March 27, 2017 (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_024.pdf).
- Darroch, Jacqueline E., Susheela Singh, and Jennifer J. Frost. 2001. “Differences in Teenage Pregnancy Rates among Five Developed Countries: The Roles of Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use.” Family Planning Perspectives 33(6):244-81.
- Fursternberg, Frank E., Jr. 2003. “Teenage Childbearing as a Public Issue and Private Concern.” Annual Review of Sociology 29:23-39.
- Hamilton, Brady E., Joyce A. Martin, and Stephanie J. Ventura. 2007. “Births: Preliminary Data for 2006.” National Vital Statistics Reports. Retrieved March 27, 2017 (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr56/nvsr56_07.pdf).
- Hotz, V. Joseph, Seth G. Sanders, and Susan W. McElroy. 2005. “Teenage Childbearing and Its Life Cycle Consequences: Exploiting a Natural Experiment.” Journal of Human Resources 40(3):683-715.
- Turley, Ruth N. Lopez. 2003. “Are Children of Young Mothers Disadvantaged Because of Their Mother’s Age or Family Background?” Child Development 74(2):465-74.
- Ventura, Stephanie, Joyce C. Abma, William D. Mosher, and Stanley K. Henshaw. 2006. “Recent Trends in Teenage Pregnancy in the United States, 1990-2002.” Health E-stats. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved 27, 2017 (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/teenpreg1990-2002/teenpreg1990-2002.htm).
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