Earlier Estimates Based on Entire Teen Population, Not Just Those Who Are Sexually Active


Teens who are sexually active are at higher risk of unintended pregnancy than their adult counterparts, according to “Unintended Pregnancy Among U.S. Adolescents: Accounting for Sexual Activity,” by Lawrence B. Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute. The article will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health and is currently available online.

Dr. Finer’s analysis of data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth examined—for the first time in more than a decade—differences between unintended pregnancy rates among all women of reproductive age and those who are sexually active. He found that, since most adult women are sexually active, rates for all adults are similar to rates for sexually active adults. Among teens, however, when rates include only those who are sexually active, the picture changes dramatically.

Dr. Finer found that, because only 27% of 15–17-year-olds are sexually active, traditional estimates of unintended pregnancy understate the extent to which sexually active adolescents experience such pregnancies. Whereas the unintended pregnancy rate among all teens aged 15–17 (40 per 1,000 women aged 15–17) is lower than that of all women (51 per 1,000 women aged 15–44), the rate among teens who are sexually active (147 per 1,000) is more than twice the national figure for sexually active women aged 15–44 (69 per 1,000). The rate among sexually active 18–19-year-olds (162 per 1,000) is also more than double the national figure.

“Accounting for sexual activity is an important consideration when calculating teens’ rate of unintended pregnancy,” says Dr. Finer. “Researchers should consider consistently incorporating measures of sexual activity into future analyses of unintended pregnancy risk. Policymakers and health care providers who rely on these data when creating policies and programs designed to reduce teen pregnancy would benefit from these more accurate measures.”

These findings should not obscure the problem that exists among women in their early 20s. There are substantially greater numbers of unintended pregnancies among women aged 20–24 than among younger women. However, the author suggests that these new findings shed light on the greater relative risk faced by teens who are sexually active. He recommends that more work be done to reduce unintended pregnancies among teens, in part by ensuring that they are equipped with the information and tools they need to protect themselves if and when they choose to become sexually active, as virtually all eventually will.