The XX Factor

Why Are Teen Pregnancy Rates So Low in North Dakota? Fracking.

An oil rig in North Dakota—aka nature’s birth control.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

A new Guttmacher Institute report has good news on teen pregnancy: As has been the case for the past 20 years, it remains on the decline throughout the United States. But the new numbers (culled from 2008 and 2010 data) also present a puzzle for politicians. Teen pregnancy rates remain highest in New Mexico, Mississippi, Texas, Nevada, Arkansas, and Arizona. They’re lowest in progressive enclaves like New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and in one lone red state—North Dakota.

How does North Dakota do it? “It’s not by having such great sex ed, contraception access, and abortion providers,” Guttmacher senior researcher Laura Lindberg told me, listing off solutions favored in more liberal states. No—North Dakota has one Planned Parenthood in a 700,000 square-mile state. Seventy-five percent of North Dakotans live in counties with no abortion provider. State law mandates that sex education in schools include a discussion of the benefits of abstinence*. And just this month, North Dakota State University president Dean Bresciani attempted to freeze federal funding for two of his own professors to stop them from starting a comprehensive sex ed program for at-risk Fargo teens.

So it’s not prophylactics. But it could be petroleum. The explosion of fracking has created thousands of North Dakota jobs and imported single young men by the truckload to fill them. That’s helped the state perform better on two major indicators of teen pregnancy: Rates go down in places with low economic inequality and a high ratio of men to women. You might think there would be higher rates of teen pregnancy with more seed floating around, but research suggests that women are more likely to delay pregnancy when they perceive future opportunities to climb the social and economic ranks—to get an education, a job, and a committed partner who benefits from the same. By the numbers, the prospects for North Dakota’s women look good: North Dakota now has the third-highest ratio of men to women in the U.S. and the oil boom has pushed North Dakota’s overall unemployment rate down to 3.2 percent.

Oil isn’t the only geographical feature driving down teen pregnancy. In 1988, far before the Bakken oil field was tapped, the state’s rate was the lowest in the nation. It could help that North Dakota is very large, and sparsely populated. As in New Hampshire and Vermont, “there are very low numbers of actual teen births occurring in North Dakota,” Lindberg told me. The population of teen moms is so low—the state recorded 666 births to teen mothers in 2008—that “you could invite them all to the governor’s mansion for lunch,” she says. Spread those pregnancies over 70,000 miles, and it’s “not enough to make it a part of the culture.”

Add it all up—a sparsely-populated state heavy in white men, low in sex education, and bursting with oil—and you don’t find many helpful clues for crafting national policy. (Besides, North Dakota’s not doing that hot—the state may look good next to the rest of the U.S., but it still boasts a higher teen birth rate than most of Europe). “North Dakota is just off-the-charts, demographically,” says June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-author of Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture. The state may prove that white, middle-class teens will probably do OK in the absence of comprehensive sex ed and well-funded reproductive health centers, as “they’ll learn from their families, their peers, their doctors, and the internet.” Still, Carbone says, “the best contraceptive has always been a promising future, and North Dakota is one of the few places in the United States right now that is booming.”

Correction, February 28, 2012: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that North Dakota mandates abstinence-only education in its schools. North Dakota only requires that schools include abstinence education, but allows for other forms of sex ed as well. In the same post, June Carbone is quoted in reference to abstinence-only education. That quote has since been deleted.