As teens' prospects rise, pregnancies fall

Adolescents are having less sex, in part because a few programs are looking to develop students' potential.

When Ashanta Abraham got to high school in Harlem, she discovered that to be hip required more than slick clothes.

"If you wasn't having sex and you wasn't pregnant, you wasn't in style," she says.

But she was determined not to be a pregnancy statistic and, with the help of a cutting-edge prevention program, she's now in college and aiming for a PhD.

Her success helps explain one of the more remarkable trends in American culture today. Teen birthrates, which began dropping in the late 1980s, are continuing to plummet. A recent report found that the teen abortion rate is also dropping – in some cases dramatically. For 15-to 17-year-olds, it dipped 39 percent from 1994 to 2000.

For the first time, those numbers confirm that fewer teens are getting pregnant in the first place. That's a trend that started in the late 1980s and continues today. Teenagers are having less sex, and those that are having it are using contraception more.

"It signals a deep, broad and profound change that's enormously gratifying," says Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "We should give a celebration party for all teens in America to say, 'You're doing the right thing increasingly, so don't stop!' "

A combination of factors are responsible for the changes in behavior. Some are tangible and easy to trace, like the fear of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, which dramatically increased condom use as well as community concern and citizen activism on the issue. Almost every state and large city, as well as many smaller communities, now have special boards and commissions set up to deal with teen pregnancy and sex education.

Other reasons are more difficult to document. The impact of welfare reform and the vigorous economy during the 1990s, for instance, may have made pregnancy less attractive.

Then there are attitude changes. Recent surveys on teen behavior show there's a higher disapproval rating of casual sex than a decade ago. Ms. Abraham says in her neighborhood, teenagers have seen the impact that getting pregnant has had on their friends and older siblings.

"One by one, as we've seen, we kind of knew that it was wrong," she says. "People would go, 'I don't want to be like her, she has a baby and she's only sixteen.' "

Sex-education researchers are also learning from their mistakes and none is more willing to admit that than Dr. Michael Carrera. He heads up the Children's Aid Society's Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program that Abraham was a part of in high school. Today, it's tone of only four programs with documented, statistically significant success in reducing both pregnancy and births among teens in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

But Dr. Carrera wasn't always so successful.

For the first 25 years of his career, he taught kids all they needed to know about the mechanics of sex education. Armed with all of that knowledge, they still kept getting pregnant. So he decided to focus on their minds as well as their bodies, an "above the waist" approach to sex education.

In 1994, he designed a multipart program that focused on developing the teens' potential. In addition to sex education, Dr. Carrera's project includes tutoring for school work, help with job training, and encouraging participation in sports, music, dance and drama.

"We look at young people as pure potential with gifts and talents," says Carrera. "We create a climate where they grow to believe that they are capable of success and that has a powerful contraceptive effect."

Counselors in the program are also encouraged to treat the teens as if they were their own children, not just clients in an after-school program.

"There's a different kind of urgency – an exploration of all ways possible to get this person to take advantage of something that we as adults know will be good for them," he says.

It is unorthodox. But independent evaluations have shown it's effective.

Young women participating in the Carrera program delayed initiating sexual activity and had pregnancy rates that were less than half that of a control group (10 percent versus 22 percent). And the percentage of young women using contraceptives was two and a half-times higher among program participants.

The program, which has been adopted in five states, is less successful among young men in delaying sexual activity, but it did have significant effect on other things, such as improved grades, graduation and college attendance rates, and reduced drug use.

But it did effect Sal Abaya's thinking about sexuality. He was 12 when he joined the program. Everyone joked about sex and many of his friends were already active sexually. But he delayed having sex until he was sure he was in a committed relationship. Then, as now, he's very cautious and uses contraceptives. He also graduated from college in the spring and is now helping to start a new Carrera program in his old neighborhood.

"I want to see these kids graduate from high school, give them the opportunities I've had," he says.

Ashanta Abraham says she also learned something in the program about life in general.

"Even if you do make a mistake, continue, don't limit yourself, keep going with your goals," she says.

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