The Teen Pregnancy Discussion We Are Not Having

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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The line of the Republican Party on Bristol Palin’s teen pregnancy is that it is a common event in typical American families (see last week’s article), but that is simply not true. The vast majority of American teens do not have babies. White teens and Alaskan teens are less likely than average to have a child. For these reasons, it is incorrect to characterize the Bristol Palin pregnancy as a common occurrence.

According to 2005 data from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, [PDF] 11 percent of white girls gave birth to a child by the age of 20. For black girls, it was 24 percent. Even if Bristol were black, her giving birth to a child would be a relatively rare event. (Note that becoming pregnant and giving birth are different things, and thus the pregnancy rates and birth rates are not the same.)

The bloggers at the National Campaign have been mystified like myself by the national reaction to the Bristol pregnancy. Here is one post:
Daddy Get Your Gun: So, let's see if I have this right: teen pregnancy is okay—"beautiful," in fact—as long as no abortion occurs and as long as there is a shotgun marriage. In addition, becoming a parent at 17 or 18 is preferable to a bit of accurate sex education and preferable to using birth control.

A full seven years ago, E.J. Dionne wrote, "It's better for unmarried teens to avoid premature sex than to use contraception, but it's better to use contraception than to get pregnant." I guess the revision we are asked to swallow is, "It's better to get married as a teen than to use contraception," even though 60% of teen marriages fail, and 80% do when the bride is pregnant.
Most Americans, I suspect, would think that the idea that teen pregnancy is preferable to sex education is crazy, but, apparently, not Sarah Palin.

Bristol's pregnancy should be used as an example to spur a deep discussion about teen pregnancy, but this discussion seems to be the last thing that the Republican Party leaders want. For if we were to do so, the hypocrisies and misinformation around Bristol’s pregnancy would be revealed.

The “Bristol statement” by the National Campaign is a good beginning for a serious discussion:
The teen pregnancy and birth rate have declined dramatically since the early 1990s (down 38% and 32% respectively) driven by decreases in sexual activity and increases in contraceptive use.

Even so, recent data show that the declines in teen sex and improvements in contraceptive use have leveled off and that the teen birth rate is on the rise for the first time in 15 years.

At present, 3 in 10 girls in the United States become pregnant by age 20.

At present, half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned and about 8 in 10 pregnancies to teens are unplanned.
What we can deduce here is that both less sex and more contraceptive use reduce pregnancy and birth rates. Also, teens today, generally, don’t plan to become pregnant.

It is important to have some historical sensibility about this issue. Teen pregnancy was both much more common in the past and less of a big deal because people married and entered the workforce earlier. Also, education was less important.

But times have changed. Some reasons why it is important to reduce the rate of black teen pregnancy and births are:
  1. Most teen pregnancies are unplanned. Planned pregnancies are best.
  2. Teen pregnancy interferes with completing high school, and it is more important than ever for blacks to complete high school.
  3. Children have better social outcomes with older parents.
  4. Side benefit: Blacks have high rates of sexually transmitted diseases. The techniques that reduce pregnancy and birth rates also reduce STD rates.
No doubt there are other benefits to reducing the rate of black teen pregnancy. Discussing these benefits are what the Bristol whitewash is preventing us from doing. It appears that one effective means to reducing black teen pregnancy is comprehensive sex education—sex education which teaches the benefits of abstinence and of careful and consistent contraceptive use.

It is not possible to know for sure without a real analysis, but it appears that the decline in black teen pregnancy and birth rates followed the decline in black poverty. Now that the black poverty has risen some, the teen pregnancy and birth rates are also rising.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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