Bristol Palin and other teen moms: New trendsetters?

Teens' use of contraceptives has declined, and their birthrates have gone up, according to new research.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Bristol Palin, America's most famous teen mom, may be part of a trend.

After years of improved teen contraceptive use and declines in teen pregnancy and births, the numbers may be reversing among certain groups of teens, according to a joint study by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the Guttmacher Institute.

While rates of teen sexual activity have not changed, the authors found a decline in contraceptive use, leading to an increase in births. Black teens, in particular, have showed reversals of progress, and among all teens, condom use has either reversed or leveled off.

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Overall, the research found a 10 percent decline in teen contraceptive protection from 2003 to 2007. The statistic factors in not just the rate of use but also types of contraception, which vary in effectiveness. Also, the teen birthrate went up 5 percent between 2005 and 2007. (Teen pregnancy rates are not yet known for that period.)

"In the end, this story is really about the loss of momentum," says Laura Lindberg, one of the study's authors and a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute. Although the statistical changes are small, "they raise concern about what the next few years will bring in this country."

The US already has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, with some 750,000 teens getting pregnant annually.

The report suggests that the decline in contraception may be partly a result of the rise in abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education that was favored under the Bush administration. President Obama's budget cuts most funding for abstinence-only, in favor of comprehensive sex ed.

Another possible factor in the reduction of condom use might be a lessening of concern over HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.

The increase in the teen birthrate could also be linked to changes in composition of the teen population itself, with an increased representation of some groups such as Latinas. Latinas have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and birth.

Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, also points to the larger context: The proportion of babies born to unmarried women, currently at 40 percent, is continuing to rise. Among 20- to 24-year-olds, the figure is 60 percent.

Three-quarters of the increase in teen births are taking place among 18- to 19-year-olds.

Celebrity culture has also been sending messages that unwed parenthood is no big deal. In the movie "Juno," an unwed teen gives birth, gives the baby up for adoption, and resumes her life – end of story. Ms. Brown hopes the MTV series "16 and Pregnant," which depicts harsh reality, will have an effect.

And what of Bristol Palin, the 18-year-old daughter of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin whose pregnancy announcement rocked the 2008 Republican National Convention? She is now a "teen-abstinence ambassador" for the Candie's Foundation. But the jury is still out on her impact. By appearing on the cover of People magazine, looking beautiful with her adorable son, she may just glamorize teen parenthood.

Or, if girls listen to what Ms. Palin says, they may get a different message. She says she loves her baby but wishes she had waited 10 years. Appearing on the "Today Show" last month, she said: A baby "is not just an accessory on your hip; this is hard work."

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