American teen births at a historic low, but still higher than the developed world

July 26, 2012

Becky Vlamis and Alexander Jerri

Teen moms are everywhere, at least on television. MTV’s reality shows like Teen Mom and 16 And Pregnant play up the drama of adolescent parenting to the amusement of the American masses. The numbers paint a different picture: Teen birth rates have dropped by 40 percent in the United States.

While that’s a major decline by any measure, American girls are still three times more likely to give birth than teens in other developed countries. Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you might attribute the difference to access to contraception or abstinence-only education.

Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley College, suggests a different reason: America's growing divide between rich and poor. "If you grow up in a location where income inequality is high, and there's less mobility in that area, then maybe it's not as costly to you to have a birth at a young age," Levine said.

The U.S. has greater income inequality than places like Switzerland and the Netherlands, where teen birth rates are less than one percent. In a recent study, Levine and his coauthor found that poorer American women from states with high income inequality were also more likely to give birth during their teen years than their counterparts in states with lower wealth gaps.

Amy Schalet, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who grew up in the Netherlands, compares American and Dutch attitudes about teen sexuality as one way of understanding the differences between teen births.

In her Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, And the Culture of Sex, she contrasts American parents, who tend to worry about "raging hormones," with the Dutch, who talk more openly about sex and love. It's not uncommon, for example, for  Dutch parents to encourage their teenage children in committed relationships to spend the night with their partners.

While abstinence-only educational policies has gained popularity in the United States, Schalet says the Dutch have underscored personal readiness want want young people "to behave respectfully towards each other and take each other into consideration."

In the 1960s, to address rising teen-pregnancy rates, the Netherlands made a concerted effort to emphasize openness and normalize sexuality. Addressing physical desire, one sex-ed textbook reads, "Your whole body is full of places that want to be caressed, rubbed, licked and bitten softly."

The emphasis on openness extended beyond the classroom, and into health-care and public policy. "The Dutch organization of family pysicians advocated strongly in favor of making the pill available to unmarried women, including teens," she said. "The Dutch government included the pill in the general insurance; there were a variety of things that were done to reduce what we call the barriers to use of contraception." 

While teen births rose in the United States up until the 1990s, in the Netherlands rates dropped precipitously beginning in the 1970s and are currently among the lowest in the world.

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