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About Women

A Study of U.S. Teen Pregnancy Rate

March 17, 1985|JANICE MALL

The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy, abortion and childbearing in the developed world and is the only developed country in which the teen-age pregnancy rate has increased in recent years, according to a new study of teen-age sexual activity and fertility in 37 industrialized countries.

The study, conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute and researchers from Princeton's Office of Population Research with funds from the Ford Foundation, also found that rates in England and Canada are just under half the U.S. rate of 96 pregnancies per 1,000 among girls ages 15 to 19. The pregnancy rate is 43 per 1,000 in France; 35 in Sweden and only 14 in the Netherlands.

The teen-age abortion rate in the United States is as high or higher than the combined abortion and birthrates of these countries, the study found.

The research was concerned not only with numbers, but with social conditions that may be related to teen pregnancy. The conclusion was that "a mass of evidence . . . contradicts or refutes many widely held beliefs in this country about the determinants of teen pregnancy."

Factors thought to be related to high teen pregnancy rates in the United States included: a lack of openness about sex; inequitable distribution of income; a high degree of religiosity; limited access to contraception and inadequate sex education in the schools. The lowest rates of pregnancy, abortion and childbearing among teens were found in developed countries with the most liberal attitudes toward sex, the most easily accessible contraceptive services and the most effective sex education.

A second part of the study examined the issue in depth in the United States and five other countries: Sweden, France, the Netherlands, England and Wales and Canada. In the Netherlands, the country with the lowest rate, sex education in schools is "perfunctory but clear," the study said, and mobile sex education teams are subsidized by the government. In Sweden, abortion laws were liberalized in 1975, but at the same time a link between schools and contraceptive clinics was established. The result was a decline in the abortion rate for teen-agers despite the greater access to abortion.

Among the widely held beliefs in this country found to be untrue by the researchers are:

--Low teen birthrates in other countries are the result of greater recourse to abortion. In fact, all the other countries studied had much lower teen abortion rates than the United States.

--Welfare encourages teen-agers to have babies. Welfare benefits in the countries with much lower birthrates were more generous than those in the United States.

--Sex education leads to sexual experimentation and pregnancy. The countries with the greatest availability of sex education and birth control had the lowest teen pregnancy rates.

--Teen pregnancy is primarily a minority phenomenon. The U.S. rate of pregnancy among white teen-agers (83 per 1,000) was far higher than the overall rates in other countries (which also have sizable minority populations).

Countries with low rates shared a social attitude supported by policies and programs. They showed a greater tolerance of teen-age sexual activity than is acceptable in the United States combined with a broad consensus that teen-age pregnancy is undesirable.

"American teen-agers at present have inherited the worst of all possible worlds regarding their exposure to messages about sex," the authors wrote. The media "tell them that sex is romantic, exciting, titillating . . . yet at the same time they get the message that good girls should say no. Almost nothing they see or hear about sex informs them about contraception or the importance of avoiding pregnancy."

A banquet earlier this month, featuring Monterey Park Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen and other speakers, raised $10,000 for a new scholarship program for women of Chinese ancestry at Cal State Los Angeles. Beginning in 1986, two scholarships will be awarded annually to Chinese-American women who are full-time students with a grade point average of 3.5 or better.

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