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.


MikePalmer

I think Lance Armstrong is probably a statistical outlier, and it was good that you left him out.

To put it another way, if you're making the case that legalized abortion reduces crime, could you also make the case that preventing abortions would result in enough Lance Armstrongs and Barack Obamas to offset the increase in crime? How would you value Lance Armstrong compared to a murderer?

And what about this: Are states that currently limit abortions more likely to produce the next great leaders and achievers? Or do the odds of that outcome barely change?

Jehovah

September 6, 2008

When will Bristol marry Levi Johnston? On November 3, 2008. When will Bristol divorce Levi Johnston? After all, extended marriage was not God's will. On November 5, 2008. Why did Bristol have unprotected sex with Levi Johnston? Because it was God's will. Sex education had nothing to do with it. Anyone knows how to prevent getting pregnant, and anyone who thinks otherwise should pray to God.

Indeed, we should all prepare for the second coming in about 4months, when we can properly greet The Messiah from the North. The Jews like Senator Joseph Lieberman will say this is the first coming, but we Christians all know how deluded they are, hmnnn?

And Steve Pesce, J.Sidney McCain made all this possible when he selected God's instrument on Earth as his running mate. Just listen to Rush Limbaugh railing about Chelsea Clinton

Next we will have Bush was anointed by God fame General William Boykin as our next Secretary of State.Halleluya!!!!!!!

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Shaquenta Collins

I wouldn't say wheather teen pregnancy is a bad or good thing because i don't want to judge. I will say some teens preganacies are unprepared for considering their ages. They have not lived long enough to have experienced living. They are not able to raise babies with the intellengency needed to bring up a baby. As a teen myself, I would love to enjoy all the fun I can while I am young and I belive that there are always a time and a place for eveything. Having babies at a young age can sometimes bruise your future such as going to college. Most people can't go to the college of their dreams because they they can't afford day care or the fact that they want to be in their babies life. This article states that most kids are born with A.D.H.D thats not always the case. but anything is possible. For example, people that were children of young parents Barack Obama and Lance Armstronge, were two successful people disapite have young parents. I turly don't think anyone should encourage teenagers to have babies at a early age.

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David B

The Netherlands is a welfare state that provides explicit sex education from an early age - the teen pregnancy rate is 8X less than in the US.

The UK and Canada have less generous welfare and less sex education (though more of both than the US) - teen pregnancy is 4x higher than the Netherlands and 2X lower than the US.

Cross-comparisons are difficult to make, but these are huge differences.

The only correlation visible is that sex education is linked to lower rates of teen pregnancy.

There is no correlation to welfare "dependency", unless you count an inverse one.

Sarah Palin made her biography, and her family, part of her campaign - at the moment, it is all we really know about her (so why the surprise that this what people were discussing?) - and her positions are at odds with the evidence.

John McCain either didn't know - which makes him rash - or did - which makes him cynical.

Griff

There are some statistics at this link

http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/2006/09/12/USTPstats.pdf

does no one google (e.g.) 'US teen pregnancy rates' before commenting on this blog ?

mannyv

Legitimizing teen pregnancy? When did teen pregnancy become non-legitimate?

Isn't not having a baby before 20 a relatively new phenomena (new = pre 1970)?

Charles

People have been saying this is a private matter, but that is completely false.

Palin probably taught her daughter abstinence only, and will probably want to legislate that, not only for Americans, but to continue to tie that type of sex education to aid to developing countries. Palin will probably have learned nothing; she will never admit this type of sex education fails. And the whole world will suffer. This is NOT a private matter.

17andPregnant

I would like to start by saying that I am only 17 and I am pregnant but far from most statistics. The father of the baby and I were both raised in homes that were more than well off and surprisingly, very active members of our youth group where we grew up together. We are also both far from uneducated considering I carried atleast a 4.6 GPA throughout high school. Things just happen and obviously it has been a while since some of your were teenagers but Sarah Palin may have educated Bristol to an extreme point, but none of that matters. Our parent''s in my situation are the leaders for teenageers in my youth group and I was pounded literally, DAILY, about sex. These nicely informative discussions meant nothing to me once we were alone. NOTICE: Condoms do actually break for those of you that assume that contraceptives weren't used. I think I have the upper-hand of experience of that fact. So to Charles, this is NOT a public matter. I was taught every kind of pregnancy prevention that you could think of by my parents but I, not my parents, decided to have sex WITH protection and it just so happened to fail. THIS has nothing to do with my parents. I in no way blame you for your lack of judgement in this area, this has obviously never happened to you but I think you should think a little more about the incredible VP SARAH Palin will make. [Notice, Bristol is not John McCains running-mate.]

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Anthony

Which is more irresponsible, for an unmarried 17-year old to have a child, or for a married 44-year old to have one?

Why is the former a scandal, and the latter nothing to discuss?

Larry

I often find these Freakonomics columns thoughtful and engaging, but this one is simply silly. Not the comments by Ms. Currie: those are insightful and useful for framing debates about the effects of teens having babies and what the societal interest is in them. The surrounding comments by Mr. Dubner, on the other hand are useless. By pointing to exceptional outliers such as Barack Obama or Lance Armstrong, he suggests that we worry about preventing teen pregnancies too much. That illogic is akin to saying that your great uncle smoked two packs a day his whole life, and died at age 95 when he was hit by a truck - and therefore cigarette smoking can't be bad for you.
The better comparison would be to take a representative sample of children of teen mothers and determine what proportion of them have become "Presidential nominees", and compare that rate to the proportion of children of adult mothers who have become "Presidential nominees." I don't know what the answer to that would be, but that would provide more insight into the life success of children of teen mothers. Statistics is not destiny - we all hope for the best for Bristol Palin and the person into which her fetus will become. But to guide economic or social policy by relying on exceptions is foolish.

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Jake

I can't remember if I've posted something to this effect before, but the Los Angeles Times ran a counterintuitive story about how some girls, particularly lower-class girls, might actually benefit from teen pregnancy over the long term. There's more discussion of it here (see the third link).

kustomlady

"I'm amazed at all the romanticizing of teen pregnancy/motherhood in American society lately"

Better to romanticize abortion and continue to overlook the many, many women who have suffered the physical and psychological consequences of abortion?

Brianjkoscuiszka

Two questions:

The article keeps talking about "teen pregnancies" but shouldn't it be "teen births"? Surely there is a segment of the population that becomes pregnant but does not give birth. My guess would be that woman who have access and means to an abortion (they are expensive and not covered by insurance) are probably from wealthier and/or more educated backgrounds. If this is the case, than isn't part of the reason that teenage births have the struggles they do because they are born into more difficult situations? The implication is that the pregnancy puts the mom into poverty; I would argue that it is more likely that the mom was already in poverty. However, I'd like to see more research on this.

Also, why are we assuming that the girl became pregnant because she failed to use contraception or acted otherwise irresponsibly? It is certainly possible that someone can act responsibly and still become pregnant. This is NOT to say that I assume this is true because she is rich/white/etc. However, we tend to dismiss teenage mothers as wanton bastions of foolish behavior which is ridiculously unfair and furthers the stereotypes that single mothers must struggle against.

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Tenebra

Your putative VP is a fine specimen. She opposes abortion on all grounds (even incest) and yet does not support teenage parents denied choice -see:http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-trail/2008/09/02/palin_slashed_funding_to_help.html

She is just plain nasty and mean spirited, and should keep her small-minded view to herself. They clearly don't hold much water in her family.

Shaun

Nirmal #10 - Your stats are a little wild. If there are 10m American 15-19 year olds and 750,000 of them will become pregnant in a year then that means that 7.5% of them will become pregnant in a given year. In actual fact 18.75% of American girls between 15-19 become pregnant. If you look at a five year period (5x 750k) 3,750,000 15-19 year olds will fall pregnant out of the (2x 10m) 20m girls who will be in that age range.

This makes more sense, keeping in mind that a high % of pregnancies end in miscarriage, etc.

If we could kick those fundamentalist idiots out of office and keep them confined to the loony bin we'd be doing okay.

Nina

As much as I admire Obama's attempt at relieving the scandal, saying that his mother had him at 18, times were undeniably different and he cannot compare his mother to Palin. His mom was not a VP who went around advocating against women's right (as Mike #3 so cleverly pointed out). She was just a woman who ended up pregnant at 18.

Plus, I find it highly hypocritical of Palin to advocate anti-abortion and abstinence and have a 17-year old pregnant daughter. Plus, there are rumors going around that this might be her daughter's second child, her first being little Trig, who Palin claims is her child.

jacob

palin eloped in 1984 with her high school boy friend and her oldest son was born approximately 8 months later. you do the math.

Xylo

wd40;

With a number of 750,000, I find it difficult to believe that all those teenagers were ignorant of birth control, particular in an age of broad health education in schools. Don't you?

And do you have a link to said ‘econometric studies'?

Steve Rosen

I read a good book "Promises I Can Keep", last year. It's about teen unwed mothers and the choices they make as told in their own words. I share office space with a pregnancy crisis center. I see a steady stream of poor, under educated women come and go. Most have fancy cell phones, nice cars, fast food bags in the car (I look to see) and no means to support themselves or their baby. It's just bad choice after bad choice. And centers like this one only help them make bad choices by enabling them.
Affluent girls (Jamie Spears, Bristol Palin) may be able to make teen pregnancy work for them, most can't.
But read the book, it discusses the reasons these girls make the choices they do.

FH

That is a truly fantastic rate of virgin birth! Or perhaps those girls did not achieve it all by themselves?

Why are the fathers missing from this analysis? Omitting them seems simultaneously anti-men, anti-women and anti-children -- an impressive clean sweep.