The rate of teen births in the U.S. is at its lowest level in almost 70 years. Yet, the sobering context is that the teen pregnancy rate is far lower in many other countries.
The most convincing explanation is that contraceptive use is much higher among teens in most Western European countries.
Last week, U.S. health officials released new government figures for 2009 showing 39 births per 1,000 girls, ages 15 through 19–the lowest rate since records have been kept on this issue.
The teen birth rate for Western Europe and a few other countries is dramatically lower. In the United Kingdom it’s 24 per 1,000 girls. In traditionally Catholic Ireland, it’s 16 and in Italy it’s 5. France’s rate is 7 per 1,000. Canada’s rate is under 13, Sweden’s is under 8, Japan’s is about 5, and in the Netherlands it’s close to 4.
Birth control is less expensive and easier for teens to get in many other developed countries than in the United States. And teachers, parents and physicians tend to be more accepting of teenage sexuality and more likely to encourage use of contraception, said Sarah Brown, chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
There are few comprehensive studies of why teen birth rates vary from country to country. And experts say there’s probably not one overarching explanation. For example, the reason for a low teen birth rate may be different in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, than in Japan, which traditionally has a more conservative culture when it comes to sex and sex education.
Some countries may have predominant social values that discourage teenage sex, but abstinence-only education programs–a hot topic in the United States–are generally not considered a major reason other countries have lower teen birth rates.
Other explanations? Perhaps race and ethnicity, said Dr. Monique Chireau, a Duke University assistant professor who researches adolescent pregnancy.
She noted the birth rate for white U.S. teens–about 26 per 1,000–is much lower then the black and Hispanic rates (59 and 70, respectively).
“There are distinctions between different ethnicities,” and the U.S. whites are more comparable to countries with more homogenous white populations, she said.