The state’s teen birth rate reached its lowest level ever recorded last year, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. But while improvement occurred among all groups statewide, huge ethnic and regional disparities remain.
For Massachusetts’ Hispanics, the teen birth rate was nearly seven times that of white teens in 2013; for black teens, the rate was three times greater than white teens. Still, for both groups the rate was half what it had been a decade earlier.
The Massachusetts report credits the wider availability of contraceptives, especially the long-acting forms, as well as educational initiatives and targeted efforts to reach out to teens at high risk of early pregnancy.
The 2013 Massachusetts Birth Report, released Friday morning, found that the birth rate for teens age 15 to 19 was 12 births per 1,000 women, down from 14 per 1,000 in 2012, and substantially lower than the rate of 35.4 per 1,000 in 1990.
“This is terrific news for all Massachusetts families, and a dramatic indication that our decisions to invest in our young people — through education, support, and resources — can have a real and lasting impact on their lives and in their communities,” Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement.
Massachusetts has historically had a lower incidence of teen births than the rest of the country, and in 2013, its rate was less than half the national rate of 26.6 per 1,000 women. The national rate, however, is declining steadily, too.
But as with many aspects of health, the benefits are not spread equally.
Maisha Douyon Cover, acting director of the Health Equity Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said that girls in poor and minority communities often do not have access to accurate information about contraceptives. Many are not aware of the variety of options available to them or are misinformed about side effects, she said.
Programs that deploy “peer leaders” to disseminate information about healthy relationships and violence prevention also prevent pregnancy because they help youngsters learn how to navigate their relationships and set goals, Douyon Cover said. “These programs create all these positive things around teens,” she said.
In some communities, a cultural reluctance to discuss sexuality and religious proscriptions against birth control contribute to teen births, said Molly Baldwin, chief executive and founder of Roca, an organization working in Greater Boston and Springfield to lift high-risk young people out of violence and poverty.
“Some young people,” Baldwin added, “feel like what they’re supposed to do is have children, as opposed to going to college, getting training, getting a job. They think that’s how life is.”
In Holyoke, which has the state’s highest teen birth rate, an agency called Girls Inc. tries to provide an alternative view. Girls Inc. offers after-school and summer programs focused on health, academics, and career development. Many of the participants live in poverty, with parents who never graduated high school; about 65 percent are Latina, executive director Suzanne Parker said.
This week, girls age 5 to 18 participated in a series of computer science activities at Girls Inc. of Holyoke. How does learning how to code prevent pregnancy?
“It opens their eyes to opportunities and hope for a future,” Parker said. “They can see a career path.”
Information about health is critical but insufficient, she said: “At that point of decision — ‘what path am I going to take in life?’ — they have to see a positive future for themselves.”
Holyoke’s teen birth rate in 2013 was less than half what it was a decade earlier.
In 2012, the first year for which state-by-state comparisons are available, Massachusetts had the second-lowest teen-pregnancy rate, after New Hampshire.
Over the years, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont have tended to have the lowest rates, while the highest proportion of teens get pregnant in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.
A review this past summer by the Guttmacher Institute, a research and educational group concerned with reproductive health, concluded that nationwide, “more and better contraceptive use has been the main factor driving the long-term decline in teen pregnancy.”
The proportion of teens who have sex has not changed in recent years, but “adolescents today are seeking and taking more responsibility for themselves,” the Guttmacher report said.
Because of changes in medical guidelines, teen girls can now obtain long-acting contraceptives without having to undergo a pelvic exam.
But other factors also might play a role, the report said. American women in general are having children later in life, and teens might simply be following this trend. Media coverage of the consequences of early pregnancy might also have influence.
Teen pregnancy hurts both mother and child. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, only 38 percent of girls who have a child before age 18 get a high school diploma by age 22. Two-thirds of teen mothers who leave their families’ households are living below the poverty level, and 63 percent of teenage mothers receive some type of public benefits. Their children score worse on measures of school readiness.
“Teen pregnancy can have serious consequences in so many aspects of a young person’s future, from lower educational attainment to higher rates of marital instability and single parenthood,” said John Polanowicz, the Massachusetts secretary of Health and Human Services. “That’s why it is so important that we continue to work with our partners to drive the teen birth rate even lower.”
Felice J. Freyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.