No moral judgement here, just the facts. Close to half of teens ages 15 to 19 are sexually active. The good news is that 86 percent of them said that they used some form of birth control but the bad news, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that less than five percent of them used the most effective types.
Last year, a total of 229,715 babies were born to women aged 15 to 19 years, for a birth rate of 22.3 per 1,000 women in this age group, the CDC reported. “This is another record low for U.S. teens and a drop of eight percent from 2014.”
The American Family Physician website says that, “although the pregnancy rate in adolescents has declined steadily in the past 10 years, it remains a major public health problem with lasting repercussions for the teenage mothers, their infants and families, and society as a whole.
“Successful strategies to prevent adolescent pregnancy include community programs to improve social development responsible sexual behavior education, and improved contraceptive counseling and delivery.”
The National Institute on Health states the obvious when they say that most teenage girls don’t plan to get pregnant, but they do. “Often, teens don’t get prenatal care soon enough, which can lead to problems later on. They have a higher risk for pregnancy-related high blood pressure and its complications. Risks for the baby include premature birth and a low birth weight.”
Teen pregnancy impacts the entire community. AFP says that in the late ’90s, the “poverty rate among children born to teenage mothers was 42 percent, twice that of the overall rate in children. The infant mortality rate (i.e. deaths in infants younger than one year per 1,000 live births) is higher in children of teenage mothers than in other children.”
So what can we do? We can talk to teens about abstinence. We can talk to teens about delaying sexual activity. And, we can talk about effective birth control when those two other things are out of our control.
“Teens most often use condoms and birth control pills, which are less effective at preventing pregnancy when not used consistently and correctly,” the CDC says. “Intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants, known as Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC) are the most effective types of birth control for teens.
“LARC is safe to use, does not require taking a pill each day or doing something each time before having sex, and can prevent pregnancy for three to ten years, depending on the method. Less than one percent of LARC users would become pregnant during the first year of use.”
Healthcare providers can encourage teens not to have sex, but they should also explain the broad range of contraceptive options and their pros and cons. A trusted PCP will remind teens that LARC by itself does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases and that condoms should also be used every time they have sex.
Parents should understand that their teens might feel more comfortable talking to someone else about sex and should support making that “someone else” a trusted health professional. School yard sex education can be interesting, but not necessarily factual.
“A review of 28 well-designed experimental studies found that most comprehensive sex-education programs do not adversely affect the initiation or frequency of sexual activity, the number of sex partners, or the reported use of condoms and other contraceptive methods,” AFP reported. “In fact, many programs were shown to significantly improve these outcomes.”
We’d be remiss to leave boys out of this discussion. “Teenage boys typically experience first intercourse at a younger age and have more sex partners than teenage girls, yet they seek care for reproductive concerns less frequently,” AFP explains and they also say that most education programs are targeted to girls.
“Adolescent boys desire information about STDs, contraception, pregnancy, and sexual health, but, as few as 32 percent of sexually active boys receive this information from their health care providers,” AFP says.
Parents should encourage the conversations and to be realistic and honest with their teens about their options without being judgmental. Try to remember how it was when we were teen, right?
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.