America's Declining Teen Birth Rate, Explained in 3 Charts

Contraception access remains vitally important.

Yesterday, Richard Florida argued that the abortion wars have created a country of very unequal abortion access. Meanwhile, attacks on emergency contraception have made access another obstacle for American women, especially teenagers.

In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration approved both the one and two-pill versions of Plan B for sale without a prescription to women 17 and older. Two years later, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius decided against a request to lower that age requirement, marking the first time a person in her position had overruled the FDA and prompting more research about the drug.

The debate is back. Just last month, the FDA approved the sale of the one-pill product over-the-counter to women 15 years or older. This comes at the same time the Justice Department is appealing a judge's ruling in favor of removing all age limits from emergency contraception. (The order won't be implemented until the appeals court hears the case.)

We decided to take a look at what teen birth rates can tell us about the potential impact of lowering this age limit.

Here are few facts to get started: In 2010, 34.2 out of every 1,000 teenage girls in the United States between the age of 15 and 19 gave birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [PDF]. From 2006 to 2010, over three-quarters [PDF] of the births in this same age group were "unintended."

Here's the number of live births in 2010, broken out by the age of the mother. Just under 4 million babies were born to women in 2010. Here's a breakdown of the children born to women between 15 and 19-years-old.*

This next chart tracks the generally declining teen birth rate from 1970 to 2011, broken out by age group. The overall birth rate for 15 to 19-year-olds dropped by half over this period, from 68.3 births per 1,000 in 1970 to 31.3 in 2011 (data for 2011 is still preliminary). Among both 18 to 19-year-olds and 15 to 17-year-olds, the rate per thousand decreased by over half as well. The rate among younger girls, ages 10 to 14, was already hovering around one per thousand, and also decreased slightly over the period. The national fertility rate in 2010, as a point of comparison, was 64.1 births per thousand women ages 15 to 44.

This final chart looks at 15 to 17-year-olds specifically, which includes the teenagers that now have access to emergency contraception without a prescription. The chart breaks out the teen birth rate for this cohort by race, highlighting dramatic differences. The rates for Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black teens are much higher than those of non-Hispanic Whites or Asians.

Of course, the observed decline in teen births is attributable to additional factors beyond the Plan B pill, including increased use of other means of contraception. The CDC report [PDF] references prior research, noting that "long-term declines in teen birth rates have coincided with declines in teen pregnancy, abortion, and fetal loss rates." Not to mention, the newness of the drug makes tracking its long-term impact difficult.

But these numbers are striking, and something to consider when restricting access to anything — birth control, condoms, or emergency contraception — that could reduce these rates.

All charts created in Google Drive.

* Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of children born to women between 15 and 19-years old.

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