Exploring teen pregnancy rates: The teen pregnancy and birth rates in Minnesota have decreased through the years – but why?

Teenage pregnancy and birth rates in Minnesota have plummeted throughout the last two decades and reached historic lows, according to recent data.

The pregnancy rate for adolescents ages 15-19 in Minnesota has declined 63 percent from 1990 to 2013, according to a May report from TeenWise Minnesota, a local organization that promotes adolescent sexual health and development. The state’s teen birth rate has fallen 54 percent during the same period.

The factors behind the declining rates may be several, according to Jill Farris, the director of training and education at TeenWise, but experts also have pointed to teenagers making safer, healthier decisions as an important aspect.

“It’s a complicated picture to paint,” Farris said. “It’s not one single thing that is probably leading to it. I think it is a combination of factors.”

By the Numbers

Jill Farris, the director of training and education at TeenWise Minnesota, talks with ThreeSixty reporter Daniela Garcia during an interview in March. (ThreeSixty Journalism staff)

“It’s a complicated picture to paint,” Farris said. “It’s not one single thing that is probably leading to it. I think it is a combination of factors.” – Jill Farris of TeenWise Minnesota

The number of pregnancies for 15- to 19-year-olds in Minnesota has dropped to 3,878 in 2013 from 8,636 in 1990, according to the TeenWise report. In 2012, there were 4,392 pregnancies, more than 500 more than the 3,878 in 2013, according to the report.

Births have dropped in similar fashion. In 2013, there were 2,950 births among 15- to 19-year-olds, which is significantly lower than the 5,336 in 1990. In 2000, there were still 5,396 births among the same age group, but in 2011 the rate dropped to 3,467 births and has continued to decrease.

Across the U.S., birth rates for teenagers ages 15 to 19 reached a record low of 26.5 per 1,000 in 2013 and dropped nearly 36 percent from 2007 to 2013, according to the report. The report also states that the overall decline in the country’s adolescent birth rate over the last two decades can be attributed to “delayed initiation of sexual activity and increased use of the most effective contraceptive methods.”

Minnesota, which ranks sixth in the nation for lowest teen births, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, tends to follow the national trends in pregnancy and birth rates, Farris said.

However, Julie Neitzel Carr, the healthy youth development coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the low rates also can be deceiving “because Minnesota as a whole has seen (a) decline in teen pregnancy and birth rates, but the data holds striking disparities in birth rates based on race and ethnicity,” she said.

For example, Asian American teen birth rates in Minnesota are 2.7 times higher than the national teen birth rate and Minnesota American Indian teen birth rates are 1.6 times the national teen birth rate, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Also, rates for African-Americans and Hispanics in Minnesota are about the same as national rates for those two groups, according to the department.

However, Minnesota’s declines likely have been driven by decreases in rates among the state’s adolescent populations of color, according to the TeenWise report.

Why the Decrease?

Some experts say teenagers in general are making smarter decisions when it comes to sexual health.

“I think the primary reason we have seen such a significant decline in unintended pregnancies among teens in the last decade is because young people are making very good decisions about their health and behaviors,” said Brian Russ, the executive director of the Annex Teen Clinic in Robbinsdale. “Ultimately, success with reducing unintended teen pregnancies comes down to that.”

Farris said one of the main reasons the rates are dropping is that teens are putting off having sex longer than in past years.

“I think the data is actually showing that young people are waiting a little longer to have sex than they were about twenty years ago, which is sometimes surprising to people but is something we know from looking at the Minnesota teen survey, for example,” Farris said.

Another major factor that has contributed to the decrease is the use of birth control, according to Farris.

“The other thing that is going in the right direction is the number of teenagers who tell us they are using a birth control method and that they are using a really effective birth control method,” Farris said. “That number is going up.”

Also, teen pregnancy rates can tend to correlate with economic downturns, Farris said.

“I think we have also seen, too, some connections in some ways with the economy, to be honest,” Farris said. “… When young people see opportunity and when they see a future for themselves, whether it’s an educational future or career path, they tend to make some different decisions and maybe put off having sex, or using birth control.”

However, for some teens, there is also what Farris calls “ambivalence” about getting pregnant.

“So if you ask young people that do end up having a baby, ‘Did you want to get pregnant?’ they’ll say, ‘Well I didn’t want to, but I didn’t really care one way or the other. Like I was kind of in the middle, I was ambivalent,’” Farris said. “And so the ambivalence is a lot higher for teenagers than it is for other groups of people.”

Sex education in schools is also a factor, however, Farris says it’s unclear as to how big of a role it plays because the state of Minnesota does not impose state mandates for sex education. Each school district decides how to teach sex education to students.

Also, funding for programs such as the Minnesota Family Planning Program, a Medicaid waiver program that helps provide services to prevent unintended pregnancies, has also played a role in the decrease in teen pregnancies and birth rates, according to Russ. The program allows the Teen Annex Clinic to enroll teens in the program independently and confidentially to cover their costs at the clinic, he said.

“I also think adults have been doing a better job of making sure young people have access to fact-based sexuality education, accessible clinical services and meaningful youth development programming,” Russ said.

Looking ahead, Farris is hopeful that rates could continue to decrease in the future.

“By continuing to invest in the future of our young people through programs and services, we should continue to see major strides in the reduction of teen birth and teen pregnancy,” she said.