Unintended Pregnancy Down Among Teens But Up for Young Adults

News that America's teen pregnancy rate fell 36 percent made for celebratory headlines this year, but a lesser-known finding is that among young adult women, rates of unwanted and unintended pregnancy have actually increased.

"The nation has made extraordinary progress in teen pregnancy, but there's been no corresponding progress among twenty-somethings," says Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

The rate of unwanted pregnancies among women ages 20 to 24 rose by 6 percent from 1994 to 2001, though it declined among teens, according to the National Campaign. Further, 54 percent of unwanted pregnancies occur to women in their twenties, with the largest proportion, 32 percent, among women 20-24.

In complementary findings, the Guttmacher Institute calculated an increase in the rate of unintended pregnancies among women ages 19-35. (The 'unintended' category includes unwanted pregnancies, described as such by the women surveyed, as well as those that are wanted but poorly planned or ill-timed.)

From 1994 to 2001, according to Guttmacher, unintended pregnancies among 25 to 29-year-olds rose from 66 to 71 per 1,000 women. In the same period, unintended pregnancies among 30- to 34-year-olds increased from 38 to 44 per 1,000 women. This trend has given researchers and reproductive health activists cause for concern:

"What you find is one in three pregnancies are unwanted. There's a lot of fertility chaos out there," Albert says. (Both Guttmacher and the National Campaign estimate the majority of unintended and unwanted pregnancies to be among unmarried women.)

The two organizations drew heavily on newly released data from the U.S. National Survey of Family Growth, which collected information from more than 17,000 women in 1994 and 2001.

Researchers are trying to find out why adolescents appear to be more capable of controlling their reproductive destinies than young adults. Most experts agree on one fairly obvious explanation: young adults are more likely than teens to be sexually active, though they don't appear to use birth control any more consistently.

The National Campaign has conducted 16 focus groups around the country this year with college- and non-college-educated 20-somethings, some with firsthand experience in pregnancy, and found that while many do not actively pursue pregnancy, they knowingly take their chances through hit-or-miss birth control.

"The question is, why is it that so many young people who say they do not want to get pregnant are rolling the dice?" Albert asks.

Experts are finding that young people's reasons for foregoing a condom or some other measure may have less to do with the urgency of the moment and more to do with their feelings about marriage and child-bearing.

"We are talking to women about why some do and don't use contraception even if they don't want to get pregnant," says Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute. "Some people are ambivalent about getting pregnant. They see it as something that happens or doesn't happen, something they have less control over."

Adding to their feelings of helplessness about pregnancy prevention is a casual acceptance of unintended pregnancy. In fact, young people are more alarmed by the prospect of an STD than an unwanted pregnancy, Albert's organization has found.

"It's almost as if pregnancies are not as important," he says, citing some of the statements that surfaced in focus groups, including:

* "Having an STD is so much worse than getting pregnant. If it (pregnancy) happens, it happens"

* "It's not going to kill me if I have one"

* "I'm 28. A baby is not the worst thing that could happen to me."

Similar statements emerged in in-depth interviews with 48 unmarried, mostly low-income parents in a study by Paula England, senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary families and a sociology professor at Stanford University. Here is a sample of one 22-year-old woman's reasoning from England's upcoming book, Unmarried Couples with Children:

"Well, we were planning on getting married, and planning to save for a house, so Myron and I are very committed to each other, so we just were -- I don't know. If we were to get pregnant it wouldn't be a big deal. Or it wouldn't be something unwanted or unplanned. And if we didn't [get pregnant] it wasn't a big deal either."

In England's study, low-income parents said they had access to birth control and could afford it. Further, they used it properly in the beginning of the relationship, but as the partnership grew more serious, they tended to use it less regularly. One explanation is that some people see the use of condoms, in particular, as a sign of mistrust in the relationship because condoms have come to be associated with disease prevention, according to England.

Another reason for the increased rate of unintended and unwanted pregnancies is the widening window of opportunity for them to occur: the age of matrimony has risen even as the onset of sexual activity has fallen. The median age of first marriage has risen from 23 to 27 for men and 21 to 26 for women over the last 25 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Further, there may be more unplanned pregnancies because of because of changing attitudes about births outside marriage, which have skyrocketed since 1970. But there is probably far more to the story, England says.


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