Adolescent Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Pregnancy in Britain and the U.S.: A Multidecade Comparison

Laura D. Lindberg, Rutgers School of Public Health Kaye Wellings, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Rachel H. Scott, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

First published on Journal of Adolescent Health:

Abstract / Summary

Pregnancy rates among adolescents have declined in the U.S. and Britain but remain high compared with other high-income countries. This comparison describes trends in pregnancy rates, recent sexual activity, and contraceptive use among women aged 16–19 years in the U.S. and Britain to consider the contribution of these two behavioral factors to the decline in pregnancy rates in the two countries and the differences between them.

We use data from two rounds of the U.S. National Survey of Family Growth, conducted 2002–2003 and 2011–2015, and the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, conducted 2000–2001 and 2010–2012, to describe population-level differences between countries and over time in sexual activity and contraceptive use. We calculate pregnancy rates using national births and abortions data.

Pregnancy rates declined in both countries; this began earlier in the U.S. and was steeper. There was no change in sexual activity in Britain, but in the U.S., the proportion reporting recent sex declined. In both countries, there was a shift toward more effective contraception. A higher proportion in Britain than the U.S. reported ever having had sex (65% vs. 49%) and sex in the last year (64% vs. 45%), 6 months (59% vs. 45%), and 4 weeks (48% vs. 45%). A higher proportion in Britain reported using more effective contraception (68% vs. 52%).

In both countries, improvements in contraceptive use have contributed substantially to declines in pregnancy rates; however, the steeper decline in the U.S. likely also reflects declines in recent sex occurring only in that country.