The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a report Wednesday showing that the United States has the highest teen birth rates among all 28-member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The UNICEF report, “A League Table of Teenage Births in Rich Nations,” indicated that 1.25 million teenagers become pregnant every year among the OECD nations. Approximately half will seek abortions, while the remaining 750,000 become teenage mothers. In 1998, 52.1 teenage births occurred in the US per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, twice the European average.
During the three decades prior to 1998, the US displayed a decline of 25% in the teen birth rate. By comparison, over half of the OECD countries had dramatic declines exceeding 72% over the same period. Authors attribute the lower birth to persistent traditions regarding sex and family in conservative countries (e.g. Japan) and improved access to sex education and contraception in more liberal cultures (e.g. Netherlands). On the contrary the report explained that the United States underwent “socio-sexual transformationÉwithout making commensurate changes to prepare young people to cope with the new pressures.” According to the report, “Contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a closed atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy.” The report also suggested that uneven wealth distribution and lower rates of higher education among teens contributed to higher US teen birth rates.
The UNICEF report is especially important given the Bush Administration’s position advocating abstinence-only sex education. The House earlier this month approved a $50 million annual provision for abstinence-only education that does not allow discussion of contraception, except when noting failure rates. The UNICEF report, however, acknowledged that increased education and availability of contraception would contribute to reducing teen birth rates in the US.