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Troubling Trend in Teen Birthrates Seen in New Federal Government Data

January 12, 2009

However, 2005–2006 Trend Data for Individual States May Be Misleading

From the early 1990s through the early 2000s, rates of teen pregnancy, birth and abortion in the United States all declined dramatically—primarily but not exclusively because of increased and more effective contraceptive use among sexually active teens. These declines have since stalled, however, and new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) indicate that teen birthrates are on the rise. NCHS reports a 3% national increase between 2005 and 2006 (from 40.5 to 41.9 births per 1,000 females aged 15–19). This trend is reflected in data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey that show recent-year declines in both teens’ contraceptive use and their delaying of first sex.

The reversal of a decade-long trend in teen births is cause for concern, and it underscores the importance of redoubling national efforts to provide teens the information and services they need to make and implement responsible decisions about their sexual behavior. This argues for eliminating funding for abstinence-only programs, which have overwhelmingly been proven ineffective, in favor of comprehensive, medically accurate sex education that helps young people delay sexual activity even as it prepares them with the information and skills they will need when they do initiate sex. Ensuring teens’ access to high-quality, confidential contraceptive services is also critical to continuing the progress made in the early 1990s.

Note and Caution
The new NCHS data are accurate at the national level, but interpreting changes at the state level between 2005 and 2006 is more complicated than it may appear to be at first glance. While news reports have focused on precisely these changes—in individual state birthrates as well as in the ranking of states—the trends they have observed are in fact misleading. NCHS uses population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau in its calculations and does not update rates annually when the Census Bureau releases revisions in these numbers. Revisions in population denominators have little impact on national rates but can have a significant impact on rates for relatively small subgroups (such as teenagers) at the subnational level (such as states).

The magnitude or even the direction of teen birthrate changes at the state level, and changes in how states stack up against each other, may be considerably different when revised population denominators are used. For example, the new NCHS report “Births: Final Data for 2006,” based on 2005 population estimates, shows a 19% increase in Alaska’s teenage birthrate between 2005 and 2006; when the 2005 rate is recalculated with a revised denominator, the increase drops to 6%. Similarly, the report shows the District of Columbia with a 24% decline in its teenage birthrate between 2005 and 2006, but with the revised 2005 denominator, the more accurate figure is a 15% increase.

It is important to note that the NCHS state-level teenage birthrates for the most current year are the best statistics available. Thus, states can be compared within a given year with a high degree of accuracy, but comparisons from one year to the next (in this case, from 2005 to 2006) can be misleading.

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