Good news from teen America

While we're wringing our hands over Littleton, evidence of a sharp decline in teen birthrates, especially among blacks, shows that adults can make a difference

Published April 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As the nation agonizes over what's wrong with American teenagers in the wake of the Littleton massacre, it would be easy to miss a slice of extraordinary good news that emerged Thursday from the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI). For the fifth year in a row, the teen birthrate has declined, more than 16 percent over the past six years.

The drop is even more striking among African-American teens. The birthrate for black teens declined by a quarter between 1991 and 1997, the last full year for which data is available. Abortion rates have declined for all groups, meaning that girls have been able to prevent pregnancies, not just terminate more of them.

Many people will squabble over who deserves credit. From Jane Fonda to Gary Bauer, celebrities, ideologues and activists on both the left and right labeled teen pregnancy one of the nation's biggest problems in the late 1980s. On the right, programs preached abstinence, while public health advocates lobbied for, and won, higher spending on health education and contraception. Although the teen birthrate decline has been evident for several years, there wasn't sufficient data to indicate which approach was correct.

Now there is, and the answer will satisfy both sides. Teens are both postponing sex and using birth control, more often and more reliably. But behind the dry data is a message with resonance in the wake of Littleton: Teens respond sensibly when adults reach out and give them information and support to make responsible decisions. What's been learned about sex can potentially be applied to youth violence, and the epidemic of alienation that's behind it.

Remarkably, AGI's latest study was able to measure which approach made a difference, and how much. "About 20 percent of the decrease since the late 1980s is because of decreased sexual activity, and 80 percent of the decrease is because of more effective contraceptive practice," says Dr. Jacqueline Derroch, AGI vice president.

But there are striking racial differences in the data. Young black women, who saw the steepest decline, are most likely to use Norplant, the contraceptive implant, or injectable Depo-Provera. About a quarter of the sexually active black girls studied used one of those two methods, compared to 9 percent of whites.

"That's the really big change," says Derroch. "We're seeing small but significant declines in sexual activity. But the big news is the use of these long-acting methods."

Of course, black girls don't just magically get injected or implanted with contraceptives. It takes programs to provide new contraceptives, and girls with the sense to use them. Since the late 1980s there's been a crusade to reach out to teens and prevent teen pregnancy in the black community, and it has paid off, in sharply lower rates not only of pregnancy, but infant mortality, school failure, youth violence and welfare dependency.

Two years ago I began interviewing health service providers in Oakland, Calif., where the black teen birthrate had dipped 30 percent in six years. People who worked with teenagers described a marked change over the course of the decade. Early in the 1990s, "I had 12-year-old girls come in asking how to get pregnant, because they wanted a baby," one counselor told me. "I'd tell them, 'I'm here to teach you how not to get pregnant.' It was spreading like wildfire."

Four years later, she said, all that had changed. "Best I can say is, it's just not cool to have a baby anymore," the counselor says. "The young women see the reality. Their friends with babies can't do the things they used to do. The fathers just walk away. And they're saying, 'That's not gonna happen to me.'"

Teens I spoke to confirmed the trend. "You still have girls having babies, because they want someone to love," a 14-year-old told me. "But not as many. It's all the diseases. It's how hard it is, taking care of a baby. And more girls are planning for their future."

It is also clear, in Oakland and nationwide, that education about AIDS is paying off in lower teen pregnancy rates. The AGI study shows more teens using condoms, and a big increase in condom use the first time teens have sex.

A study of sexual activity by young men amplifies those findings. Researchers with the Urban Institute and the American Enterprise Institute looked at numbers on condom use and sexual activity in young men 15 to 19, and found some intriguing trends. Consistent condom use by black teen men rose by more than 25 percent between 1988 and 1995; condom use by whites also rose, but a little less sharply. Young white men were more likely to abstain from sex, however, especially in the suburbs. "There's some evidence that abstinence 'pledge campaigns,' especially in suburban, religious communities, are actually working," says Freya Sonenstein of the Urban Institute.

But the big news in the study is the sharp drop in the number of teen males having unprotected sex -- from 37 percent to 27 percent between 1988 and 1995. "AIDS education has become almost universal, and it seems to be working," Sonenstein says.

Significantly, and alarmingly, the number of Latino young men having unprotected sex stayed about the same. That's matched by an increase in teenage Latinas having babies. Latinas have replaced African-Americans as the group with the highest teen birthrates. Some of this trend is culturally motivated; Latinas are also more likely to marry as teens, for instance. But some of it reflects a belated recognition that teen pregnancy is a problem in that community. Adults have reached out to urban black teens and suburban whites but neglected rural, urban and suburban Latinos. That will no doubt change with the recent data. (Few national studies track Asian trends, because to date the numbers have been too small.)

In the black community, there's a range of opinion about the reason for the teen birthrate decline. Sometimes the explanations are predictable: Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., for instance, credits "increased funding for youth health programs" in the inner city, especially in the wake of the riots after the Rodney King verdict -- which took place, ironically, exactly seven years ago. Some of the explanations are surprising. Eloise Anderson, a conservative anti-welfare crusader who ran social service programs under Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson, credited not welfare cuts but the 1995 Million Man March with awakening a "moral sense" in black men and women that they needed to care for their children -- and avoid having kids they couldn't care for.

Gayle Quinn Williams of the West Oakland Health Center credits the end of the crack epidemic. Crack decimated a generation of inner-city mothers, and left a void of supervision and affection that young people filled with sex -- as if the disappearance of mothering made girls ache to be mothers themselves. "Plus, you had young girls having babies for young men who expected to die, to leave them a legacy. It was like a war." Williams also credits President Clinton -- but not for more government funding. "I see a lot more kids trying to protect their virginity and avoid AIDS by having oral sex -- and thanks to the president, they think it's not sex," she said ironically.

Maybe surprisingly, welfare reform doesn't seem to have made a difference in the teen birthrate decline, according to a study by the centrist Rockefeller Institute. But it's hard not to notice that birthrates have dropped as employment rates have risen. "We've had a very good economy, along with all these grass-roots efforts to get to kids," notes Sonenstein.

But maybe the best explanation, in the wake of Littleton, comes from AGI's Jacqueline Derroch: "The credit truly goes to the teenagers. They think it's better not to have a baby, and not to get pregnant, when they're young. Now adults are helping them be successful in what they've been trying to do."

By Joan Walsh

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