Postponing pregnancy

August 24, 2006

Teen pregnancies and teen births have been on the decline in America for more than a decade. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy reports that, since its peak in 1991, the teen birthrate has dropped by one-third, and the teen pregnancy rate has decreased about 28 percent since its 1990 peak. But there are pockets, such as Maryland's Washington County, where the teen birthrate is still high, reminding us that the campaign is not over.

The latest state data show that 48.6 out of 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 gave birth in Washington County in 2004, compared with 41.2 nationally and 32.3 statewide. Baltimore still tops the state, with a rate of 68.2, but the city's rate is generally at a historic low. Washington County's struggle reinforces the fact that teen pregnancies and births are not just inner-city problems.

As documented by The Sun's Joanna Daemmrich, the reasons why the teen birthrate remains so high in that part of Western Maryland are complicated, including a social norm of early parenthood among many families, low expectations that young women will pursue an education beyond high school and resistance to abortion or adoption. But as one of the young mothers lamented: "My life has changed a lot. You shouldn't be having babies in your teens. I mean it."

The county is trying to bring the rate down, but its efforts may need to be more targeted and coordinated. In the past five years, county school officials have raised academic standards and the high school graduation rate, while also offering more opportunities for pregnant teens and teen moms to get a diploma. A task force is rightly pushing for more sex education in high schools than the state requires. Studies show that if young parents can graduate from high school, get married or wait until they are at least 20 to have a baby, then the chances that their child will grow up in poverty are less than 10 percent, compared with nearly 65 percent if they don't.

Schools and community agencies should also work to give teenagers a broader view of possible life choices. Researchers have found that some of the most effective pregnancy-prevention programs for teens take a comprehensive approach, including mentoring, an emphasis on job skills, voluntary community service and reproductive health. Programs that focus on relationships and help teens confront difficult situations - such as pressure to have sex or not to use contraception - through interactive role-playing and similar exercises are also considered more effective than those in which teens are asked to listen passively.

It's certainly worth celebrating the fact that fewer teens are getting pregnant and having kids, but areas such as Washington County illustrate why this is still a work in progress.

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