As Teen Birth Rate Drops to Record Low, Greatest Sexual Health Disparities Persist in the South; New Auburn Report Helps Explain Why
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a continuing decline in the U.S. teen birth rate. In a report released by the National Center for Health Statistics on April 10th, preliminary birth data for 2010 show that the teen birth rate fell nine percent between 2009 and 2010. The decline occurred among all racial and ethnic groups. This brings the national rate to a “historic low” of 34 births per 1,000 young women aged 15–19. Currently, the teen birth rate is at its lowest level since reporting began in 1946. What’s more, the current rate marks a 44 percent decline in teen births over the last 20 years.
In 2006 the teen birth rate increased three percent, the first time in 15 years after experiencing a steady decline between 1991 and 2005. However, the 2010 data mark the third straight year of decline in the teen birth rate since 2007.
Across the country, almost all states experienced a significant decline in teen birth. Arizona experienced the largest drop, with a 29 percent decline. Only three states—Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia—did not see a significant decline. Rates for teen birth remain highest in the South and Southwest. States in these regions accounted for all of the top ten states with the highest teen birth rates in the country. Mississippi’s teen birth rate ranks highest in the nation, with a rate of 55 births per 1,000 young women ages 15–19, followed by New Mexico (52.9), Arkansas (52.5), Texas (52.2), Oklahoma (50.4), Louisiana (47.7), Kentucky (46.2), West Virginia (44.8), Alabama (43.6), and Tennessee (43.2).
These data reflect the findings of a new study released by the University of Auburn at Montgomery’s Center for Demographic Research, Sexual Health of Young People in the U.S. South: Challenges and Opportunities. Published in March 2012, the report provides analysis on the status of sexual health in ten Southern states—Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Specifically, it examines the sexual health outcomes of young people, looking at indicators such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, teenage pregnancy and birth, and low birth weight. The report then focuses on the sexual health education practices of these 10 Southern states to identify challenges and opportunities for improving young people’s sexual health. It draws on research from peer-reviewed studies and analyzes data from the U.S. Census Bureau, CDC, and General Social Survey.
Findings from the report show that high levels of poverty, low educational attainment among women, and limited access to health care services contribute to the severe sexual health disparities in the South, including high rates of unintended teen pregnancy and STDs. In particular, one key finding shows that the higher teen birth rate in Southern states is associated with higher levels of poverty in the South. This reflects findings from previous studies, which have shown that early childbearing is more likely among those with lower income and educational levels.
The report also attributes unintended teen pregnancy to a lack of adequate sex education and access to sexual health care services available to young people. It highlights the fact that the federal government has invested over a billion dollars in ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which do not significantly impact teen sexual behavior or lead to lower rates of unintended pregnancy or STDs. “Research has established that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have not had the desired impact of delaying sexual activity and keeping young people healthy,” stated Theresa Davidson, one of the co-authors of the report. Indeed, recent analysis by the Guttmacher Institute finds that the steady decline in the teen birth rate between 2007 and 2010 can be attributed almost exclusively to increased contraceptive use among teenagers.
A group of 20 organizations across the 10 Southern states featured in the report have partnered together to advocate for improved sexual health outcomes among young people and the provision of comprehensive sex education in schools. “Broad public support and new funding opportunities create a real chance for us to ensure teenagers have the information they need to make responsible, healthy choices – choices we know can change the course of their lives and improve the health of our communities and region,” said Brandi Parrish Ellison, associate director of the New Morning Foundation in South Carolina—one of the organizations working to improve sexual health outcomes in the South.
Information from the report states that 89 percent of Southerners support teaching more comprehensive sex education in schools. Recent polling data collected in Mississippi showed similar results, with 92% of parents supporting age-appropriate sex education in schools. The Women’s Fund of Mississippi—another organization involved in the 10-state partnership—conducted interviews with Mississippi high school students, which show that young people are disappointed by the limited sex education they receive in the classroom:
“The first time I ever heard anything about sex was the tenth grade in my…Physical Science [class], and that chapter was very short. That was the shortest chapter in that book and that’s ridiculous. [We learn] how to dissect a frog for almost three weeks but [the] lesson on sex is a week. Dissecting a frog, what’s that going to do for me? Not a thing…But sex education, that’s going to do a whole lot for me.”
Along with the need for improved sex education in schools, these sexual health advocates also note the need for young people’s increased access to sexual health care services. Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of the West Virginia reproductive rights organization, WV FREE, noted that young people face greater challenges when seeking access to health care, which further impedes their ability to protect their sexual health. “It’s difficult for kids to get to clinics often,” stated Pomponio. The great family planning program we have in West Virginia is sometimes hard to reach for some kids. Some kids don’t know about it, and there’s often this stigma associated with teen sex.”
WV FREE released a video on its website that highlights teens’ real experiences working to understand their sexual health. The video, “Teens Have Sex: The Status of Sexual Health Education in West Virginia” underscores the challenges young people face in receiving quality sexual health information and services. “The interviews highlight the importance of listening to youth and taking into account community values and youth perspectives on…reproductive health,” said Pomponio.
Despite the challenges young people in the South are facing, advocates involved in this multi-state coalition are encouraged by the continuing decline in the teen birth rate and greater opportunities for improved sexual health programming and services for youth.
“North Carolina’s combined strategy of helping at-risk teens break the cycle of teen pregnancy while providing all young people with basic education and care has given us incredible results,” said Kay Phillips, executive director of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina—also a member group of the regional coalition. “Continuing to provide effective education and medical care is the only way we can continue to see these kinds of results.”
 Hamilton, Brady E. and Stephanie J. Ventura, “Birth Rates for U.S. Teenagers Reach Historic Lows for All Age and Ethnic Groups,” data brief, number 89, (Department of Health and Human Services: Hyattsville, MD) April 2012, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db89.pdf>.
 Yanyi K. Djamba, Davidson, Thersea C., and Aga, Mosisa G, Sexual Health of Young People in the South: Challenges and Opportunities, (Center for Demographic Research: Montgomery, AL) March 2012, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://www.demographics.aum.edu/uploadedfile/CDR_SexualHealth_6-1.pdf>.
 Whitney Burdette, “Poverty, Low Education Attainment Lead to Teen Pregnancy, Study Finds,” State Journal, 26 March 2012, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://www.statejournal.com/story/17258344/poverty-low-education-attainment-lead-to-teen-pregnancy-study-finds>.
 Center for Demographic Research, “Sexual Health of Youth in the South Worst in the Nation: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Are Not Working, But Opportunities for Improvement Exist,” Press Release published on 15 March 2012, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://www.demographics.aum.edu/uploadedfile/CDR_SexualHealthRelease.pdf>.
 “New Government Data Finds Sharp Decline in Teen Births: Increased Contraceptive Use and Shifts to More Effective Contraceptive Methods behind This Encouraging Trend,” Guttmacher Institute, 1 December 2011, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://www.guttmacher.org/media/inthenews/2011/12/01/index.html>.
 South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, “Southern Region Still Has Work to Do on Adolescent Sexual Health,” Press Release published 19 March 2012, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://www.teenpregnancysc.org/news.aspx?article_id=19>.
 Women’s Fund of Mississippi, “Jamela and Carla Make the Case for Abstinence Plus,” YouTube, published 19 March 2012, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5leWc4iKnvE&feature=relmfu>.
 Whitney Burdette, “Poverty, Low Education Attainment Lead to Teen Pregnancy, Study Finds.”
 Megan Workman, “Teen Pregnancy Study Cites High Numbers in South,” Charleston Gazette, 21 March 2012, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://wvgazette.com/News/201203210228>.
 Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, “North Carolina Teen Pregnancy Rate Plummets to Historic Low,” Press Release published 7 December 2011, accessed 23 April 2012, <http://appcnc.org/images/file/Final%20Press%20Release%20-%202010%20Teen%20Pregnancy%20Rates.pdf>.