Women in 20s trust luck, not birth control

May 20, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

THERE IS A BIG PROBLEM WITH unwanted pregnancies in this country and, surprise, it is not your teenage daughter. It is your twentysomething daughter.

That's the conclusion of new research from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a non-profit organization that may have to alter its name and its mission.

While the number of teen pregnancies has dropped by more than a third since 1990 and abortions among this age group have dropped by half, the rate of unwanted pregnancies among 20- to 24-year-olds has actually increased, and over half of all unwanted pregnancies occur to women in their 20s.

"Only the teens are making progress," said Isabel Sawhill, president of the National Campaign's board and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "And that is something I find stunning."

By "unwanted" the researchers do not mean "mistimed" or "inconvenient." It means not wanted -- ever. And these unwanted pregnancies have far-reaching consequences.

The women experiencing them are less likely to receive pre-pregnancy and prenatal health care and this puts the health and development of the children at risk.

Most of the children are born to unmarried women, and children born outside of two-parent married families, are more likely to be poor, drop out of high school and have lower grades and lower aspirations.

And nearly two-thirds of those unwanted pregnancies end in abortion.

We know these things. What we don't know is what is going on in the heads of these 20-somethings.

They are in what Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign, calls a "fog zone."

"These young people tell us, 'I don't want to get pregnant but I'm not on any birth control.' Their behavior doesn't match up."

Brown sees this problem as far more complex than anything a public health campaign about safe sex can address. "What we are seeing is an inability to have enough self-esteem to control one's life."

"It is clear these kids have a bunch of myths and misinformation about sex in their heads," said Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign, pointing to the comments from 20-something focus groups.

They talk of depending on luck and hope to keep from getting pregnant. They don't know when ovulation occurs or its connection to pregnancy. They think birth control makes your hair fall out.

"But we don't understand the sex lives of those in their 20s and 30s," said Albert, although 97 percent of women have had sex at least once by the age of 29. "We have to do a lot more talking to them before we know what is going on in their heads."

No less an authority than the Centers for Disease Control now defines adolescence as lasting until 25. Our 20-somethings may be out of the house but they still haven't figured things out, and the forces that guided them -- mom and dad, teachers, coaches, parents of friends -- may no longer be around.

For more than a decade, the National Campaign has focused on teens, telling them to postpone sex and to protect themselves if they do not. But that message is one that the 20-somethings have to hear, too, perhaps with a little editing: Saying "yes" to sex once, doesn't mean you have to say "yes" every time.

"We know that 20-somethings are less likely to say 'no'," said Albert. "Part of this challenge is getting across to them when it is OK to say 'no.'

"The rest of the message is the same: 'You either don't have sex or you use protection. Simple as that.'"

Brown says our 20-somethings "are big, but not grown up." They are supposed to be adults, but their lives remain very unsettled -- including jobs, schooling, apartments, friendships, and lovers.

As parents, we may have thought that our job was done when they left for college or moved into their first apartment. What we are seeing with the chaos of unwanted pregnancies among those who should know better is that we were wrong.

It is possible that our 20-something children need our firm guidance, love and support as much as they did when they were 14.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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