A recent study performed by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health measured unintended pregnancy rates based on the number of sexually active women, rather than all women as in previous studies, and found significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy among the 15–17 and 18–19 age groups. For example, the rate for sexually active young women ages 15–17 is over 100 unintended pregnancies per 1,000 people greater than the rate calculated for all young women in the same age group.
In 2002, the unintended pregnancy rate among all young women ages 15–17 was 40 per 1,000 people, which was less than the rate of 51 per 1,000 for all women; however, only 27% of the young women in that age group reported being sexually active. By contrast, there were 147 unintended pregnancies per 1,000 sexually active young women in the 15–17 age group—over three times higher than the unadjusted number and over double the national average of 69 per 1,000 for all women.[i] Although the disparity between rates is not as vast for the 18–19 age group, the number of 162 unintended pregnancies per 1,000 sexually active young women is more than 50% greater than the unadjusted rate of 108 per 1,000.[ii] While the unadjusted rate for 15- to 17-year-olds is among the lowest, the adjusted rate among that same age group is second only to that of young women age 18–19, clearly showing that young women are at a much higher risk for unintended pregnancy than previously believed.
The fact that almost 15% of sexually active young women ages 15–17, and over 16% of their peers ages 18 and 19, will experience an unintended pregnancy is particularly troubling given the ramifications for their future prospects as well as those of their children. Due to the dearth of adequate support services, including access to affordable health care, free or low-cost child care services in academic settings, and job training, teenage mothers are less likely to graduate high school or go to college, and more likely to live in poverty. In addition, children born to teenage mothers are more likely to become teenage parents themselves, thus perpetuating the cycle of unrealized potential and hardship. Given these risk factors for poor outcomes faced by teenage mothers, it is clear that efforts to reduce unintended pregnancy are imperative. Research has shown that “declining adolescent pregnancy rates . . . [are] primarily attributable to improved contraceptive use” and that comprehensive sex education programs increase contraceptive use among sexually active teenagers, in addition to other positive outcomes, such as delaying sexual initiation.[iii] Comprehensive sex education empowers young people to control whether or not they become parents at any age, while abstinence-only-until-marriage programs stigmatize young people who are sexually active and do not provide them the information they need to prevent unintended pregnancy.
“This study provides sobering insight into the prevalence of unintended pregnancy among sexually active young women, as it drastically alters the previous notion that young women, especially those ages 15–17, experienced significantly lower unintended pregnancy rates than women over age 20,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “Like so many others before it, this study demonstrates the necessity of commencing sexuality education before young people initiate sexual activity, in order to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy. Important life decisions like if and when to have children are not taken lightly by women, and they should have complete and accurate information to make these decisions.”
[i] Lawrence B. Finer, Unintended pregnancy among U.S. adolescents: accounting for sexual activity (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2010), figure 2, accessed 17 May 2010, <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/JAH-Unintended-pregnancy.pdf>.
[iii] John S. Santelli, Laura Duberstein Lindberg, Lawrence B. Finer, and Susheela Singh, “Explaining Recent Declines in Adolescent Pregnancy in the United States: The Contribution of Abstinence and Improved Contraceptive Use,” American Journal of Public Health 97.1 (January 2007), accessed 18 May 2010, <http://ajph.aphapublications.org/cgi/reprint/97/1/150>,, 154.