The rate of teenage births in the U.S. fell 8 percent in 2015, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. This marks eight consecutive years of decline for the rate, which has dropped 46 percent since 2007 and now stands at 22.3 live births per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19. The steady drop in the U.S. teen birth rate has been largely credited with raising the average age of first-time mothers 1.4 years since 2000.
Brady Hamilton, the CDC study’s author, told STAT that experts haven’t landed on a single explanation for the swift waning of the teen birth rate. One possible—and eminently logical—contributing factor: greater access to birth control. The Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2010 made contraceptives free for insured patients, and since the peak of the teen birth rate in the 1990s, many states have enacted policies that allow underage patients to access contraceptives without parental notification. In the past few years, Colorado and Delaware have launched programs to give free long-acting reversible contraception (such as IUDs and implants) to low-income women and teens who want it; in Colorado, the initiative cut the teen birth rate in half in just six years.
Improved access to contraception is a much more likely explanation for the precipitous drop in the teen birth rate than any change in teen sexual activity, which has fallen since the ’90s but has remained largely stable since 2007. The Obama administration’s rollback of funding for abstinence-only sex education may have had some impact, too, since those programs have been shown to reduce teens’ knowledge of and willingness to use contraception.
Teen births among Hispanic and non-Hispanic black teens have nearly halved in the last decade, though rates in those demographic groups are still twice as high as white teens. Due to the proliferation of programs focused on teaching pregnancy prevention to black and Hispanic teens and the concentration of teens of color in metropolitan areas, where comprehensive sex education remains widely available, teens of color have maintained access to information about birth control. But even with fewer funds going to abstinence-only sex education programs, fewer white and rural teens are learning about contraception now than they did six to 10 years ago. If U.S. legislators want to maintain our teen-birth decline, they should consider aligning their sex-ed funding provisions with the facts.