You may have seen recent headlines such as “US teen pregnancy rate near historic low” and been somewhat confused (I certainly was). After all, didn’t the CDC just announce that teen pregnancy rates were going up? A Dec 7, 2007 CDC press release entitled “Teen Birth Rate Rises for First Time in 14 Years” stated that “The teen birth rate in the United States rose in 2006 for the first time since 1991, and unmarried childbearing also rose significantly, according to preliminary birth statistics.”
The two reports focus on slightly different things – teen pregnancies vs. teen births. The new report notes that the teen pregnancy rate was 72.2 per 1,000 ages 15-19 in 2004. The 2006 report indicates that the teen birth rate has increased to 41.9 births per 1,000, but doesn’t provide an overall teen pregnancy rate. These are difficult to compare easily, as not all pregnancies result in births. We know, then, that births to teenagers increased in 2006, but not how the actual pregnancy rate changed. The teen pregnancy report shows a historic trend of both birth and abortion rates declining alongside pregnancy rates.
Another difference between the two reports is the time period covered. The report cited by the most recent CDC press release (“Pregnancy Rate Drops for U.S. Women Under Age 25“) actually states: “Pregnancy rates for females under age 25, including teenagers, in the United States declined in 2004 compared to 1990.” This most recent report stops at 2004, when teen pregnancy rates were at their lowest point since data began being collected in 1976, falling steadily from a record high around 1990. It does not include 2006 data on teen pregnancies or births, when we know at least that the teen birth rate had increased.
What difference does it make? If you only looked at the most recent, “teen pregnancies down!” reports, you might have a different impression with regards to sex education, contraception availability, and related policy than if you also looked at the 2006 data and asked why an increase occurred. Although we don’t yet know if that increase represents the beginning or a trend or a mere blip, it’s important to remember that one report does not always provide a complete picture.