ATLANTA - The rate of teen births in the United States is at its lowest level in almost 70 years. Yet, the sobering context is the teen pregnancy rate is far lower in many other countries.
The most convincing explanation is that contraceptive use is much higher among teens in most Western European countries.
Last week, U.S. health officials released new government figures for 2009 showing 39 births per 1,000 girls, ages 15 through 19 - the lowest rate since records have been kept.
The teen birthrate for Western Europe and a few other countries is dramatically lower. In the United Kingdom, it's 24 per 1,000 girls. In traditionally Catholic Ireland, it's 16, and in Italy, it's 5. France's rate is 7 per 1,000. Canada's rate is under 13, Sweden's is under 8, Japan's is about 5, and in the Netherlands it's close to 4.
The disparity has existed for decades, yet there are few comprehensive studies of why teen birthrates vary from country to country. Experts say there's probably not one overarching explanation, but several say the reason mostly has to do with more realistic approaches to birth control.
Birth control is less expensive and easier for teens to get in many other developed countries than here. Teachers, parents and physicians tend to be more accepting of teenage sexuality and more likely to encourage use of contraception, said Sarah Brown, chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Some countries may have predominant social values discouraging teenage sex, but abstinence-only education programs - a hot topic here - are not considered a major reason other countries have lower teen birthrates.
Teen births are a concern: The hazards of teen pregnancy include higher dropout rates, as well as possible health and other problems for young mothers and their kids.
Other explanations? Perhaps race and ethnicity, said Dr. Monique Chireau, a Duke University assistant professor who researches adolescent pregnancy. She noted the birthrate for white U.S. teens - about 26 per 1,000 - is much lower than the black and Hispanic rates (59 and 70, respectively). "There are distinctions between different ethnicities," and the U.S. whites are more comparable to countries with more homogeneous white populations, she said.