You may have heard the good news: Fewer teens are getting pregnant in the United States. You may intuitively know the not-so-good news: Adolescent Latinas and African-Americans are still getting pregnant in high numbers, including those in New York City.
So about the good news. The Center for Disease Control and the New York City Department of Health confirm that nationally and locally the number of youth getting pregnant has declined over the last ten years. In New York City, the teen birth rate has experienced a steady decline from 34.9 births per 1,000 women in 2003 to 25.8 in 2011 to 23.6 births in 2013. The studies also indicate that the abortion rate has decreased during that period.
But minority women still register the highest numbers of adolescent pregnancy. Latina teens are still 1.5 times more likely to get pregnant than their white peers. Likewise, there are 100.7 births for every 1,000 African-American teens in New York City, compared to 16 for every 1,000 for whites.
So what is this due to? There is a strong correlation between poverty, race, and early pregnancy. Neighborhoods with a higher percentage of population living below the federal poverty level are home to more teens that are pregnant. For instance, the Bronx has some of the poorest zip codes of the country and 90% of its population is either Latino (53.5%) or African American (36.5%); unsurprisingly, it also logs one of the highest pregnancy rates in the nation. Teen pregnancies create additional risks for mothers and fetuses, including higher incidences of preterm births and low birth weight newborns. They also hamper young women’s abilities to advance educationally and vocationally, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
What else needs to be done? Respected professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the Adolescent Health Society attest that access to birth control and comprehensive sex education results in more reproductive health parity. To illustrate this point: when comparing the sexual behavior of teens in the Bronx with their peers in the rest of the country, the percentage of teens engaging in sexual activities remain the same; the only variable is that the latter group has access to more information and contraceptives. The NYC Department of Health also confirmed that increased use of contraceptive methods likely contributed to the City’s significant decline in teen pregnancies. Similarly, the Center for Disease Control credited the increased use of contraceptives with a major role in the drop of teen birth rates nationally.
The public wants sex education too. Various surveys have concluded that parents want sex education in their children’s schools, and that they believe it should include a variety of topics like contraceptive methods. And the vast majority of adolescents want to receive information on contraceptives, HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The problem and solutions are quite complex, but funding comprehensive sex education and access to reproductive health care should be no-brainers, particularly for Latinas and African-Americans in New York City’s impoverished neighborhoods.
Fabiola Carrion is an expert on adolescent health and CHCF blogger.