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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.