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Teen pregnancy and resulting births pose many societal challenges, and as a result require the collective efforts of many to provide solutions. Teen pregnancy has been considered a "social ill" for centuries in the United States and has always challenged moral and ethical sensibilities. The economic costs of teens giving birth are significant, and there are many compelling reasons to reduce the teen pregnancy. Research shows that reducing the number of births to teens and increasing the age at which a women gives birth yields significant cost savings for the public sector. Efforts to reduce teen pregnancy are mainly focused on prevention and sex education is a large part of the effort. Twenty-first century sex education programs focus on two main strategies, they are: abstinence only education and abstinence plus education. Abstinence only teaches that abstaining from sexual activity is the only truly effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy. Abstinence plus education focuses on delaying the initiation of sexual activity and recommends the use of contraception if a teen is sexually active. The success of abstinence only education has been exaggerated according to many sociologists and researchers. Scientific research indicates that abstinence plus education is actually much more effective in preventing teen pregnancy. Solving the problem of teen pregnancy has largely been relegating to treating the symptoms of the problem and employing prevention strategies aimed at young women. Sociologists believe that reducing the rate of teen pregnancy will require developing more comprehensive and holistic solutions in the future. Researchers, teachers, parents and community leaders are recommending and developing programs that focus on the role of boys and young men in the teen pregnancy puzzle. Research indicates that involving boys and young men in "male only" sex education may help to significantly reduce the rate of teen pregnancy over the coming years. The effectiveness of approaching the teen pregnancy problem from holistic or system-wide view will be documented in future research.
Keywords Abstinence Only; Abstinence Plus; Comprehensive Sexuality Education; Non-Marital Births; Public Sector Costs; Punitive; Teen Childbearing
Teen pregnancy is largely regarded as a societal problem that is most effectively dealt with through prevention strategies. However, some researchers argue that the discrepancies between the realities of teen pregnancy and the strategies for its prevention hinder the issue from being adequately addressed on a holistic level (Kohili & Nyberg, 1995). Cultural and political attitudes toward sexuality may also hinder the formulation of a concerted effort toward confronting the problem of teen pregnancy. Instead, policy makers, educators, researchers, and parents have generally focused on preventing teen pregnancy itself rather than on addressing the societal influences that may encourage teen pregnancy. Variables such as the age at which a teen first engages in sexual intercourse and the use or non-use of contraception can all predict the likelihood of a teen becoming pregnant. However, both of these variables are in turn influenced by a number of societal indicators such as peer pressure, pro-social values, parent-child communication, and self esteem (Kohili & Nyberg, 1995).
Young, unwed women have been giving birth for centuries. The "objective conditions" around teen births have not changed significantly over time. However, changes in the language associated with the issue illustrate significant shifts in the subjective perception of "teen pregnancy" throughout history (Luker, 1997).
In the Colonial era, women who gave birth outside of wedlock were called "fallen women" and considered to be sinners. The children born out of wedlock were "bastards" or "illegitimate." The economic impact of these children and their mothers were a pressing social concern: without a husband's support, unwed mothers and their children might need to become wards of the state. During the Progressive era of the early 1900s a more compassionate attitude toward unwed women and their children evolved. Unplanned pregnancies were no longer considered a moral or economic problem, but rather "a societal problem, an index of what was wrong with society" (Luker, 1997, p. 20). A stigma has long been associated with giving birth out of wedlock, and the fear and shame that went along with bearing illegitimate children kept the number of unmarried births low until relatively recent decades. Today, many sociologists admit that the stigma is largely gone, and that its disappearance has had at least some relation to the increase in teen sexual activity and pregnancy. (Kohili & Nyberg, 1995)
The Economic Cost of Teen Pregnancy
Though teen pregnancy rates declined by 36 percent from 1990–2002 and by 33 percent among girls aged fifteen to nineteen from 1991–2004; as of 2012 the teen pregnancy rate in the United States is still the highest of all the industrialized nations. Children born to teens are very likely to grow up in single parent households, and poverty in households that are headed by single women is between four and five times more severe than in households headed by married couples (Haskins & Sawhill, 2007). According the Haskins & Sawhill, "reversing the trend toward single-parent families would have an immediate effect in reducing poverty rates. But perhaps more important, it would also have a long-term effect on children's growth and development" (p. 4).
The age of a woman when she has her first child has a significant impact on the public sector costs associated with the birth. The younger the mother is, the higher the net cost of the birth (Hoffman, 2006). A 1996 report Kids Having Kids and a later 2006 report By the Numbers: The Public Costs of Teen Childbearing both attempted to calculated the relative costs associated with births to teens. The author of the later report described his methodology, which was similar to that of the former report:
The cost estimates provided in this report are based on a very conservative research approach that only includes costs that can be confidently attributed to teen childbearing itself rather than to other traits or disadvantages that often accompany teen childbearing (such as poverty) (Hoffman, 2006, p. 3).
By the Numbers calculated the costs in two areas: costs associated with the mother and her partner and costs associated with the children of teen mothers. Public sector costs associated with teen mothers and partners are calculated primarily as loss of tax revenue due to lower lifetime earnings. Public sector costs associated with children of teens include publicly provided healthcare, foster care, and child welfare services. The more indirect costs incurred by children who are born to teens often show up as incarceration costs and lost tax revenue due to the children's lower earnings (Hoffman, 2006).
Sociologist's goals in reviewing these net costs associated with teen births is to "make apparent the economic value of preventing early pregnancy" (Hoffman, 2006, p. 3) Delaying the age of first birth saves significant money in the public sector because teens who have children frequently rely on social services for support and, over their lifetimes, pay lower taxes (Hoffman, 2006) The primary goal is to measure the costs that could be averted if today's mothers delay their first birth until their early 20s (Hoffman, 2006).
Teen pregnancy declined by about one-third between 1991 and 2009, consequently reducing the number of children in poverty; by 2013 the rate of teen pregnancy was still declining. Trends in teen sexual activity and contraceptive use suggest that a combination of existing policies and changes in the larger culture have produced reductions since the early 1990s (Haskins & Sawhill, 2007).
Between 2010 and 2011 there was an additional drop of 8 percent for babies born to mothers between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. Birth rates fell by 11 percent for mothers between the ages of fifteen and seventeen.
Sociologists are eager to identify programs and policies that successfully reduce the number of teen pregnancies. A great many programs focus on preventing teen pregnancy; however, this essay will not attempt to provide a comprehensive review of all of them. Instead, it will discuss research surrounding sex education, namely abstinence only education and abstinence plus education. The discussion surrounding sex education will focus not only on current research findings, but also on the veracity of the research that has produced different and often conflicting results. Finally, this essay will discuss programs that focus on the role of boys...