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U.S. Teen Birth Rate Still Relatively High

Study suggests more access to birth control is needed; opponents disagree with findings

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 5, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A liberal-minded foundation says its study of teen-age pregnancy in North America and Europe proves that American adolescents need more sex education and better access to contraceptives and abortion. But a major conservative group disagrees with the conclusions and many of the findings.

The study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that American teen-age girls in 2000 gave birth at a rate twice that of the same age group in Great Britain and Canada and five times that of girls in France and Sweden. At the same time, it also found, American girls were less likely to use contraceptives, especially birth control pills, than their peers elsewhere.

The institute attributes the differences in birth rates to contrasting values about teen-age sexual behavior and contraceptives.

"It's only here that we are trying to promote abstinence and trying to stop teens from having sex," says study co-author Jennifer Frost. "In other countries, there was a general acceptance that at some point in your teen-age years you are probably going to become sexually active. They try to support teens in making that decision when it's best for them."

But Peter Brandt, spokesman for the Focus on the Family organization, which discourages contraceptive use by teens, called the entire study into question. "A fuller view of the facts can yield surprisingly different conclusions," he says.

For example, he notes, the study says that the European countries have fewer restrictions on abortion. But they actually have several laws that make abortion tougher to get than in the United States, he says.

Despite its statement that abortion is easier to get in Europe, the study found that U.S. teens have more abortions per capita than their counterparts in the four other countries. However, the U.S. teens are getting pregnant at a higher rate, too, it says.

Brandt added that the European countries cannot be easily compared to the United States because they are not as diverse.

"There is a level of cultural homogeneity that does not exist for us," he says. "People grow up and remain in the same towns at a much higher rate than we do."

Frost acknowledged that it's not easy to compare the countries studied -- the United States, Canada, France, Great Britain and Sweden. "We have to qualify things when we make these cross-national comparisons," she says. "The U.S. is very different."

However, even when diversity is eliminated and white teens from the United States are studied as a group, they still get pregnant at a higher rate than in the other countries, she says.

In some ways, teens in the five countries do have much in common, according to the study. In all of them, young women usually became sexually active in their teens, and at least three in four had sex by the time they were 20.

Researchers found that teen-age girls in the United States are less likely to use contraceptives than their peers in the other countries, according to figures from the early 1990s, and are much less likely to take birth control pills. Still, more than 80 percent of the American teens said they had used contraception the last time they had intercourse.

Unilke the other countries, the main contraceptive method in the United States was condoms.

Brandt acknowledged that higher use of birth control pills in Europe may explain the lower teen birth rate there. But he says that's no reason to adopt such a policy here.

"Haven't we sold our kids down the river if we say, 'We know you're going to have sex, so we're going to stick you on birth control pills'"? he asks.

What To Do

To learn more about the Alan Gutttmacher Institute's study, read this Q&A about it.

Focus on the Family has a very different view about teen-age sexuality and contraception. Read its opinions here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Peter Brandt, director, issue response, Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs. Colo.; Jennifer Frost, Dr.P.H., senior research associate, Alan Guttmacher Institute, New York; Alan Guttmacher Institute study
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