Elizabeth Cook: Good news on teen pregnancy rate

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 30, 2014

Children having children. We’ve lamented teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births so long that we overlooked something.
Rates of teen-age pregnancy are down. Way down.
Just ask Elizabeth Hundley Finley, daughter of Diane Hundley of Salisbury. Elizabeth is strategic communications director for the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, the state’s only statewide nonprofit dedicated to adolescent sexual health.
And she has a surprising message. Teen pregnancy rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in North Carolina, she says — 39.6 pregnancies per 1,000 girls.
Rowan’s rate is a little higher, 45.2. But it’s less than half of the 103.8 rate per 1,000 the county hit at its peak, when 10 percent of Rowan County girls experienced a pregnancy. Rowan has seen a 58 percent decline in the teen pregnancy rate within 20 years, she said.
In real numbers, the county saw 392 teen pregnancies in 1989, she said. Of those, 130 were terminated.
In 2012, the total number of teen pregnancies was 197 — with only 21 ending in abortion.
That’s something to celebrate.

And it’s a switch from the days when Elizabeth and my daughter Emily were in high school together and members of Youth in Action at the Elizabeth H. Dole American Red Cross. They were trained to talk to other teens about the danger of HIV infection — “peer educators,” they were called — and had some eye-opening experiences.
Elizabeth was particularly stunned when she came home after one session, Diane said. All the girls Elizabeth and Emily had talked to that day were younger than they were, she told her mom — and they all had babies.
The experience made an impression, seeing so many young people poorly equipped for what they were experiencing, Elizabeth said.
The numbers are down, but that problem is the same, Elizabeth says. Too many teenagers are having babies when they are unprepared emotionally and financially for the responsibilities of raising a child and making their way in the world. It undermines their health, their safety and ultimately our community.

The racial disparities in teen pregnancy rates have improved but are still persistent, Elizabeth said.
About 1 in 11 Latinas got pregnant in 2012, 1 in 18 African American teens and 1 in 27 white girls, she said.
“So you can see that some of the risks young people in our community experience are disproportionate,” she said.
Some other surprising things surface when you dig into the data about teen pregnancy. People get the idea that typical teen pregnancies are like the ones on the TV — “16 and Pregnant,” she said, and showed a photo of an African American girl who appeared happy about her situation.
“It’s wrong for a couple of reasons,” she said.
The majority of teens who get pregnant are 18 or 19, she said. And their pregnancies are almost entirely unplanned. If you ask teens how important it is to not get pregnant, 90 percent will say it’s important or very important, according to one study. More than 80 percent of teen mothers say the pregnancies were not planned.

Teen pregnancy rates are falling for several reasons, she said:
• The average age of “sexual debut” has gone from 16 in 1929 to 17.2 years now, the oldest in the country’s history.
• Teens who are having sex are using birth control, and birth control has gotten more effective.
• They’re abstaining because of religious or moral values.
• Young men have rethought what it means to be a man. More of them say now they haven’t found the right person to have sex with, whereas in decades past they said they hadn’t found anyone who would have sex with them.
• Kids are not spending as much time in bedrooms or back seats. They’re into their technology. And though that can get them into trouble of a sort, Elizabeth said, “tweeting and texting never got anybody pregnant.”

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post. Contact her at ecook@salisburypost.com.