In 2008, rates of teen pregnancies in the US reached their lowest level in nearly 40 years. Since their peak in the early 1990s, they have fallen dramatically, as have rates of resulting births and abortions, according to a new report released this week from the Guttmacher Institute, a not-for-profit sexual health research group whose analysis finds that rates are down among all racial and ethnic groups, although disparities remain.

The report shows that in the US:
  • Teen pregnancy rate in 2008 was 67.8 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15-19 (equal to about 733,000 pregnancies in 7% of US teens).

  • This is a 43% drop from the peak in 1990, when the rate was 116.9 per 1,000.

  • The birth rate fell by 35% from 61.8 births per 1,000 teens in 1991 to 40.2 in 2008.

  • The abortion rate fell by 59% from a peak of 43.5 abortions per 1,000 teens in 1988 to 17.8 in 2008.
Even though the reductions have been dramatic across all racial and ethnic groups, disparities persist, said report lead author Kathryn Kost and co-author Stanley Henshaw.

Kost told the press that although these declines are "great news", the "continued inequities among racial and ethnic minorities are cause for concern".

"It is time to redouble our efforts to ensure that all teens have access to the information and contraceptive services they need to prevent unwanted pregnancies," she urged.

Even though, after peaking in the early early 1990s, teen pregnancies fell in all groups (Hispanics by 37%, blacks by 48%, and 50% among non-Hispanic whites), rates among Hispanic and black teens are still some two to three higher than in non-Hispanic whites.

There were similar large disparities in rates of births and abortions. In 2008, births to black and Hispanic teens were twice those for non-Hispanic whites. Abortions among black teens was four times, and for Hispanic teens was twice, the rate for whites.

Research shows that the gradual long decline in rates of pregnancy, births and abortions among teens, is due mostly to increased use of contraception.

And, although the 1990s saw a drop in the proportion of teenage girls who were sexually experienced, since then it has changed little.

One explanation for the continued drop in teen pregnancy in recent years is probably due to increased use of more effective contraceptives, said the authors, who suggest the overall picture reflects that teenagers are choosing to be more effective users of contraceptives.

The authors recommend that trends in teenage pregnancy, birth and abortion need to be closely monitored in coming years to find out how the sexual behavior of young women in the US may be changing.

"Further research will be needed to understand the factors that are affecting these trends," they urge.

The authors sourced their data from the US Bureau of the Census, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Survey of Family Growth, various published studies, and unpublished data from the Guttmacher Abortion Provider Surveys.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD