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Teenagers Found More Effective at Preventing Pregnancies

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While more teenagers are having sexual intercourse at younger ages, they have become more effective at preventing pregnancies, according to a report released last week by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Currently, the report notes, more than half of women and almost three-quarters of men have had intercourse before their 18th birthday. That represents a major increase from the early 1970's, when just over a third of women and half of men had had sex by age 18.

Even as more young people are becoming sexually active, however, the number of teenage pregnancies over all has remained stable in recent decades, at around one million a year. The reason, the report suggests, is largely that sexually active adolescents are using contraceptives regularly.

Researchers found that for every 1,000 sexually active women ages 15 to 19 in 1990, 208 became pregnant, compared with 254 in 1972--a drop of nearly 19 percent.

The decline in the pregnancy rate is due in part, the researchers suggest, to the fact that two-thirds of teenagers today use some method of contraception the first time they have sex. Among sexually experienced women, 70 percent of 15- to 17-year-old women and 80 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds use contraceptives "on an ongoing basis'' to prevent unwanted pregnancies and guard against sexually transmitted diseases, the report says.

The authors note that condom use among sexually experienced women ages 15 to 19 jumped from 23 percent to 48 percent between 1982 and 1988.

Teenagers are currently "as effective'' in using contraceptives as adults and actually have lower rates of pregnancy than do unmarried women in their early 20's.

"I think that credit needs to be given where credit is due. More teenagers are using contraception at first intercourse and on an ongoing basis,'' said Susan Tew, a spokeswoman for the Guttmacher Institute, a family-planning research group.

'Doing a Better Job'

Ms. Tew said the group launched the inquiry, which was based on analysis of more than 200 previous studies, in an effort to make sense of the often contradictory research on teenage sexual activity.

"Our data does show that teenagers are doing a better job,'' she said.

But today's adolescents, who are at risk for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, still need to learn more about the hazards they face, the report says.

Some sex-education courses have been successful in helping young teenagers delay intercourse and improve contraceptive use. The most effective pregnancy-prevention programs provide information on contraception and S.T.D.'s and promote interpersonal skills, while also emphasizing abstinence until marriage, the report argues.

"If we are going to help teenagers avoid unwanted pregnancy and abortions, we need to accept the reality of their lives, including their sexual activity,'' said Jeannie I. Rosoff, the president of the institute. "We must also give them the information, guidance, and the skills they need to deal with the pressures to have sex too soon.''

In fact, the report says, the majority of very young teenagers who have had sex reported that they have at times been coerced into having sex. Seven out of 10 women who had intercourse before age 14 said they did so involuntarily. And, often, these sexual encounters involved men who were considerably older.

"Most fathers of babies born to teenage mothers are not teenagers themselves,'' the report says, noting that only an estimated one-fourth of the fathers of babies born to women under age 18 are that young themselves.

The researchers found that while teenagers account for a quarter of all abortions performed annually in the United States, the abortion rate for that group fell 25 percent between 1980 and 1990, from 95 to 72 abortions for every 1,000 sexually experienced teenage women.

Better use of contraceptives and a decline in the percentage of pregnant teenagers who decide to have abortions account for the drop, the researchers found. But the analysts acknowledged that they were unsure whether fewer teenagers are opting for abortions because their pregnancies were intended or because there currently is less of a social stigma attached to having children outside of marriage.

'Disastrous Changes' Seen

Some groups criticized the report's methodology, however, arguing that it underplays the significance of the teenage-pregnancy problem.

The Washington-based Family Research Council said the report presents a skewed picture by calculating pregnancy rates only for sexually active young people, rather than for all teenagers.

The Guttmacher report "obscures the disastrous changes'' in teenage sexual activity in the past few decades, the group said.

But Guttmacher officials said they were not trying to downplay the problem.

"We aren't so optimistic about the problem of teenage pregnancy; we know it is significant,'' Ms. Tew said. "Our report should be interpreted to show that the negative consequences of teenage pregnancy are very problematic.''

Advocates of abstinence-based education said they feared that that approach would be overshadowed by an emphasis on contraception.

"We need to talk very seriously about how to say no and how to protect these young girls,'' said Kristi S. Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council. "We need to help children learn the discipline for success, rather than making them memorize the politically correct mantra of condom,'' she said.

Copies of the 88-page report, titled "Sex and America's Teenagers,'' are available for $33 each from the Guttmacher Institute, 120 Wall St., New York, N.Y. 10005.

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