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Steep decline in teenage pregnancy rate shows the results of concerted efforts

Teenage pregnancy is down and the reason has not to do with either abstinence or abortion: It’s about birth control.

That was the conclusion of researchers from the Guttmacher Institute and Columbia University, whose report was published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The declining pregnancy rate is heartening news, and the findings of researchers are important to the work that must go on. Given the nature of youth, keeping rates of teen pregnancy down will require continual effort.

The best approach to reducing teen pregnancy has been the subject of fierce debate, with many people objecting to any reliance on birth control. To them, abstinence-only is the sole acceptable method.

This view is short-sighted and, in fact, stands virtually no chance of working. Western society is awash in sexual imagery and teenagers are a primary target. To think that they and their raging hormones can absorb all those messages and never act on them is unrealistic.

That doesn’t mean that abstinence education is without value. It doesn’t take much to make this a broad-brush approach, and efforts to delay sexual activity will certainly work for some youths, and it avoids the possibility of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases, which most birth control methods do not. Beyond that, its inclusion makes the whole package more politically palatable.

But the compelling fact is that information about and access to birth control has made the difference, and it’s one that all Americans should cheer. Purists might prefer that all teenagers simply wait to have sex, but it’s a failing strategy that leads to pregnancies, abortions, lowered lifetime potential and higher public assistance costs.

The report quantified the risks of not using any birth control. Laura Lindberg, the study’s lead author and a Guttmacher researcher, noted that, “If a teen uses no method they have an 85 percent chance of getting pregnant [within a year]. Using anything is way more effective than that 85 percent risk.” The best birth control method for teens – or anyone – she said, “is one that they are willing and able to use.”

The decline in teen pregnancies dates to the early 1990s, the study’s authors say, with the rate dropping by 57 percent between 1991 and 2013. The increase in contraceptive use dates to the mid-1990s, with the use of any contraceptive at the most recent sexual encounter rising from 66 to 86 percent from 1995 to 2012. That’s a remarkable change that likely relies to some extent on internal family dynamics.

The study won’t silence the calls for abstinence-only education, but its a mid-20th century view that simply overlooks the harsh facts of modern life. Abstinence deserves its place in the task of talking to teenagers about sex, but as this study shows, it’s birth control that gets the results. That has to be the main point of attack.

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