(Editor's note: The writer, Mary Beth Pierucci, is director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Augusta.)
THE DROP IN the teen birth rate is good news for teens, families and the community. Yet there appears to be some confusion around why this has happened.
Is it because of comprehensive sexuality education programs? Is it because of abstinence-only programs? Or is it attributed to an increase in teen abortions?
The truth is that pregnancy, birth and abortion rates for teen-agers nationally have all declined steadily since 1990.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, April, 1999, national trends are as follows:
Teen pregnancy rate dropped 17 percent since it's peak rate in 1990.
Teen birth rate dropped 12 percent since its peak rate in 1991.
Teen abortion rate dropped 31 percent since 1986, which should allay some concerns.
Similar rate drops are also noted in the Annie E. Casey Foundation 1998 publication of "When Teens Have Sex: Issues and Trends."
A combination of factors are responsible for the decrease in teen pregnancy including more information available to teens, the delay of onset of sexual activity and more effective use of contraceptives.
Teens now are the first generation to have lived their entire lives with the specter of HIVAIDS, and it has affected their behavior.
ABSTINENCE-ONLY programs have been politically popular and therefore have resulted in large government grants to implement them.
According to Debra W. Haffner, president of Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, they have not been successful.
She writes, "Comprehensive sexuality education is, on the other hand, an effective strategy for giving young people the skills to delay their involvement in sexual behaviors."
Ms. Haffner cites several studies that conclude that sexuality education does not encourage teens to start having sexual intercourse, that programs must take place before young people begin experimenting and that teenagers who start having intercourse following a sexuality education program are more likely to use contraceptives than those who have not participated in a program.
DESPITE POSITIVE trends, adolescents are still becoming sexually active at an uncomfortably young age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "Youth Risk Behavior Trends" reports that in 1991, 54.1 percent of high schoolers had engaged in sexual intercourse. By 1999 that figure had dropped to 49.9 percent.
While there has been a significant reduction in teen pregnancy, birth and abortion rates, the number of sexually active teens has not dropped as much as many would hope.
Parents need to talk to their kids about the benefits of delaying sexual activity and the benefits of using contraception. But many parents are not comfortable or familiar with the subject, or realize too late that they have missed the opportunity to share their values and guidance with their kids.
That is why it is essential that information be available to families to help make these conversations possible and to teens so that they can learn to make informed decisions for themselves.
At Planned Parenthood, we believe that teen years are for education and growing up, and not for pregnancy and parenting. In a society that ostensibly frowns on teen sex, yet uses it to promote everything from sneakers to toothpaste, we must all be committed to promoting responsible choices to teens.
Teens need supportive families, communities and resources for information and health care.
BY ENSURING opportunities for all teens and stressing the advantages of remaining pregnancy free, we are confident we will continue to see a drop in teen pregnancies and better futures for young people.