U.S. Teenage Birthrate Tops Industrial Nations
Clinton Administration officials have hailed the recently reported five-year drop in the teenage birthrate as a national achievement. They have cited better contraceptive use and abstinence education as proof that school and community-based approaches thwart childbearing by teenagers.
But a sobering fact was buried in all the hubbub over the nation's accomplishment: By far, the United States still has the highest teenage birthrate in the industrialized world.
In 1995, there were 57 births per 1,000 15- to 19-year-old women in the United States. That is twice Britain's rate, five times Germany's, and 14 times Japan's, according to a report released last week by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York City-based reproductive-health research group.
The availability of contraception, starkly different cultural attitudes about dating and marriage, and the type of sex education taught in schools all contribute to teenage birthrates, according to the study. "Into a New World: Young Women's Sexual and Reproductive Lives" reviews reproductive-health practices in 53 countries. The 56-page report also warns of health and economic consequences if adolescent childbearing goes unchecked.
One reason European teenagers have lower birthrates than their U.S. counterparts is that they have easier access to contraceptives, international experts say.
The rates of sexual activity among young people in most European countries are comparable to those of American teenagers, with more than 50 percent of all teenagers sexually active by age 18. But in Great Britain, there are only 29 births per 1,000 teenagers. In Germany, the rate is 11, and in the Netherlands it is four.
Renate Bahr, the spokeswoman for the German Foundation for World Population in Hannover, Germany, a privately funded international family-planning group, said one reason for the low German rate is that a German girls as young as 14 can obtain prescriptions for birth control pills without a parent's permission. There is no stigma attached to contraceptive devices, Ms. Bahr said, pointing out that an 8th grader with birth control pills in her purse might be labeled promiscuous in the United States, but Germans would consider that responsible behavior for a sexually active teenager.
In addition, European and Scandinavian nations provide detailed information about human sexuality in the early grades.
Teenagers in Denmark may become sexually active at earlier ages than U.S. youths on average, but their birthrate is nine per 1,000 15- to 19-year-old girls, one-sixth that of the United States.
Debra Haffner, the executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S., a private, nonprofit group in New York City, said that 8th graders in Denmark typically see films that may include discussions of masturbation and homosexuality, as well as methods of birth control, she said.
Teachers in Denmark commonly take groups of students to health clinics to familiarize them with reproductive-health issues. "The message is teenagers need to be prepared," Ms. Haffner said.
While Denmark's sex education approach may be consistent in schools across the country, such courses in the United States vary widely. Few districts teach courses that would include discussions about alternative lifestyles. The majority of U.S. schools use curricula that emphasize abstinence from sexual activity while providing basic information about contraception and AIDS prevention.
But a growing number of districts are adopting lessons, supported by religious groups, that emphasize abstinence from sexual activity and avoid discussion of contraception. Such "abstinence only" movements don't exist in European countries, said Roni Liyanage, who in his job as a youth officer at the International Planned Parenthood Federation in London provides a young person's perspective on group issues. "The European model is based on teenagers making informed choices. It doesn't condone one lifestyle over another," he said.
Though the European approach is to educate students about sex at early ages and to outfit sexually active youths with contraception, other developed nations discourage early motherhood with strong cultural prohibitions against premarital sex and having children outside of marriage. For example, Japan has only four births per 1,000 15- to 19-year-old girls, one of the lowest rates in the world. Only 10 percent of adolescent births are to unmarried women in Japan, while 62 percent of babies born to U.S. teenagers are to unmarried women, the report says.
"In Japan, they have a very strict culture where you would bring shame on the family if you have a baby out of wedlock," said Gracie Hsu, a policy analyst at the Family Research Council, a conservative family-issues organization in Washington.
Japanese teenagers' social life is also much different from that of American youths, Ms. Haffner of siecus said. "Japanese teens don't date. The pressure to get into the appropriate school is incredible. Japan keeps their kids too busy to have sex," she said.
Both Ms. Hsu, who advocates a Japanese model, and Ms. Haffner, who prefers the Danish approach, agree that the U.S. teenage birthrate remains high compared with other developed nations' because Americans are divided over abstinence vs. sex education.
"In Japan, kids don't have sex," added Kristin Moore, the president of Child Trends Inc., a Washington-based research group. "But, in Europe, while they don't approve of sex at young ages, they are pragmatic and provide services.
"In this country, we argue which approach to take, and kids don't get a dose of either approach," she said. "Adolescents get a very confusing and difficult message."
Unlike Japan and the Netherlands, which both have virtually homogeneous populations, the United States comprises numerous racial and ethnic groups, whose cultures are often at variance on issues of sexuality. Those differences are reflected in the varying birthrates among Hispanic, black, and white youths within the United States. ("Educators Call Birthrate Drop Payoff for Sex Ed. Programs," May 13, 1998.)
The U.S. teenage birthrate also may be higher than that of other developed nations because the United States has a higher percentage of youths living below the poverty line. Impoverished youths are more likely to become parents at earlier ages, studies show.
The authors of the Guttmacher Institute report warn that unwanted pregnancies have significant health and economic consequences for women, from sexually transmitted diseases to diminished job skills to limited educational attainment. It notes that low educational attainment correlates strongly with early childbearing.
Women in the United States who do not finish high school are more than six times as likely to give birth by their 18th birthdays than those without a diploma, the report says.
Vol. 17, Issue 36, Page 5Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as U.S. Teenage Birthrate Tops Industrial Nations