The teen birthrate declined 2 percent in 2008, according to new, preliminary data released by the CDC. The new number is a welcome relief for public-health officials: between 2006 and 2008, the teen birthrate had increased 4 percent, halting a decades-long trend of dropping adolescent childbearing through the 1990s and early 2000s.
What caused this drop in teen births is difficult to say but will likely be subject to numerous spins in the coming days. The National Abstinence Education Association has taken it as evidence in favor of "placing a priority on the risk avoidance abstinence-centered message," whereas supporters of comprehensive sex education, which has a much stronger body of research, will likely fire back that 2008 was the year when 25 states opted out of Title V abstinence-only funding, the highest number since the program began in 1996. I suspect the explanation is more complex than any one approach to sex education can account for.
It will be important to watch out for the Guttmacher Institute's annual report on the teen abortion rate, which will show whether the teen birthrate decrease is also a decrease in teen pregnancy or whether it masks another uptick in teen abortion rates.
The picture in the United States looks promising—or at least more so than it has in the past two years. I think it's important to remember that, globally, our teen birthrate is shockingly high. We handily lead developed countries in teen birthrates: 41.5 per 1,000 teens (15- to 19-year-olds). That's about triple Canada's teenbirth rate (13.3 per 1,000 teens), four times that of most Western European countries (France, for example, is at 10.3), and an astounding eight times higher than in the Netherlands, which is at 5.3, according to statistics from the United Nations. Taken over time, the National Campaign to End Teen Pregnancy estimates that 30 percent of teenage girls in the United States become pregnant, at least once, by the age of 20. While today's news is undoubtedly good, it by no means indicates that we're anywhere close to winning the war on teen pregnancy.