The Numbers on Teen Pregnancy

It is amazing to me that in the several days after it was announced that the second-ever woman was nominated for a major-party vice-president slot, so much of the news has concerned her and her daughter’s reproductive activities.

Part of the reason to have a female candidate in the first place is presumably to be an advocate for women’s rights, which include reproductive choices — but still, surely this is not what anyone had in mind.

Unsurprisingly, Bristol Palin‘s pregnancy has become a political issue (or at least a very, very public issue) just as quickly as both the McCain and Obama camps have cautioned that it should not be.

That said, it got me to thinking about a real political issue that Palin’s pregnancy represents: the effects of young motherhood. So I asked Janet Currie, a Columbia economist who has done good and vast research on parenthood and childhood, if she could roll up some of her thinking on the subject. Here’s her reply:

Bristol Palin is not alone. She is one of 750,000 American girls ranging in age from 15 to 19 who will likely become pregnant this year. It would be unfortunate if media reports about high-profile people like Ms. Palin help legitimize teen pregnancy.

Given the decision to carry her pregnancy to term, Ms. Palin’s available resources and support will give her the best possible chance of a good outcome. But on average, teen pregnancies are more likely to result in premature births and low-birth-weight babies. This is not a good start in life. Babies with a low birth weight are more likely to have A.D.H.D. and are less likely to graduate from high school.

Teen moms are less likely than other women to attend or complete college, and their marriages are more likely to end in divorce; about 50 percent of women who married younger than age 18 are divorced after 10 years, compared to 20 percent of women who married at age 25 or older. In turn, single mothers have the highest poverty rates of any demographic group, and 60 percent of the U.S.-born children in mother-only families are poor.

Statistics are not destiny, and one can only hope Ms. Palin has a healthy baby, a long and happy marriage, and a sense of fulfillment as a homemaker, a career woman, or both. But the fact remains that for most women, a teen pregnancy considerably diminishes the odds of any happy ending.

High teen pregnancy rates remain a serious problem in the U.S. Although they have declined since they peaked in 1990, rates are still twice as high as in Canada or England, and eight times as high as in the Netherlands or in Japan.

These international differences are due to low contraceptive use in the U.S.; most of the recent decline in teen pregnancy in the U.S. is due to more consistent use of birth control, although teens are also waiting longer to have sex than in the past. In 1995, almost 20 percent of girls had sex by age 17, compared to 15 percent in 2002. Let us hope that attempts to normalize situations like Ms. Palin’s do not help to reverse this trend.

Just to reinforce Currie’s statement that “statistics are not destiny,” consider what Obama said while telling reporters recently to leave Bristol Palin alone: “[M]y mother had me when she was 18.”

This reminds me of something we thought about writing in Freakonomics but, for reasons I can no longer recall, didn’t.

In a section about the downward effect of abortion on the crime rate, we discussed the back story of Jane Roe (real name: Norma McCorvey), the unmarried Texas woman in tough straits who couldn’t get the abortion she wanted and whose resulting lawsuit became Roe v. Wade.

There was another unmarried Texas woman in tough straits from roughly the same time who, statistically, may have looked like someone who also would have considered an abortion. In fact, she was kicked out of her home at age 17 because she refused her parents’ wishes to have an abortion. Instead, she gave birth to the child, a son whose name is … Lance Armstrong.

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  1. Peter says:

    So I guess Bristol Palin is kind of responsible for raising awareness about teen pregnancy. Nice that something positive can come from all this. Palin, She is awsome. I think that her image will get cleaned up the more people get familuar with her. they have videos and alot of pictures there, background info. People really need to do the work to figure out who she is.

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  2. wd40 says:

    Palin believes that teaching teenagers about birth control is wrong. Her own daughter’s pregnancy illustrates the folly of her mother’s policy prescription. This is not a mere anecdote. Econometric studies have demonstrated that abstinence only programs result in more pregnancies and STD among teenagers. The media should be discussing Sarah Palin’s unwise policy rather than Bristol Pallin’s pregnancy.

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  3. Mike says:

    “Part of the reason to have a female candidate in the first place is presumably to be an advocate for women’s rights, which include reproductive choices”

    … Sarah Palin stands firmly in exact opposition to this! Take that as a plus or minus as your politics will, but it’s certainly an odd thing to say in this article. If she was picked to be an advocate for reproductive choice, they picked very very wrong. She doesn’t even want exceptions for rape or incest.

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  4. Eric says:

    Reading Mrs Currie’s explanation, I still feel a little unclear : one does not explain a social phenomenon with a bunch of percentages which merely describe the consequences of a behavior.
    Moreover, It seems that teen pregnancy homogeneously strikes all races and social conditions, but is it really the case? I would have asummed that it is far less common in educated families.
    Last, Mrs Currie seems to explicitely think that there is an appropriate age for teen sex (15 is too young, 17 is better) and that abstinence is the best remedy against teen pregnancy (technically, I agree, it is). That’s interesting! How does economics justify subjective moral stands?

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  5. Di says:

    It’s about as helpful to trot out the Lance Armstrong pony as it is to suggest that, because Bill Gates dropped out of college, a higher degree doesn’t matter. The issue isn’t Bristol’s typical teen choice (or non-choice) to have unprotected sex, but rather her mother’s willingness to subject the child to the spotlight that a national political campaign would make inevitable. Bristol may have been willing, but she was also willing to risk pregnancy for a short-term thrill, so her decisionmaking is called into question along with the grownups. Maybe McPalin believes that it’s time to have a frank discussion about a common problem, but to hear the voice of abstinence-only education making the opening statement is painful.

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  6. Erin says:

    I feel very bad for poor Bristol Palin. I grew up in an area where fundamentalists ruled the day and teen pregnancy was unfortunately very common. I graduated from high school in 2001 and 40 girls from my graduating class of 450 students had had babies before our graduation. Sarah Palin almost certainly did not teach her children about birth control and has now reaped the consequences. I just hope everything turns out okay for the poor kid – and her kid. She is definitely too young to get married and I hope her parents/his parents aren’t pushing them too hard for that.

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  7. jrod1115 says:

    Instead of her daughter being put into the spot light (her mother is getting the VP nod correct? I almost forgot with all the Bristol attention). Why doesn’t everyone make a big deal out the fact that Obama has been criticized for lack of exeprience yet Palin has only been governor for 22 months. As far as her foreign policy experience I have heard some say well she is close to Russia (was she involved in peace negotiations between them in Georgia because she was so close?) Good choice from someone who will be one of the oldest presidents and has had cancer 4 times. Talk about a polictical play as opposed to a smart choice.
    I think McCain placed too much importance in the bumper sticker that reads “Coldest State, Hottest Governor”

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  8. one mom says:

    i have a daughter and she knows better. she was taught. So making a lesson of this case is one thingo what it really says or doesn’t say is another.

    Does it say something about her parents. it may? i don’t know. what it does say, however, is the legislation of morality is not the states job-

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