Although the overall rate of teen pregnancy has been declining, the rates have remained high for teens that are most vulnerable. The great majority of Americans believe that teen pregnancies are a serious national problem, indeed a problem that is the major component of what is thought to be national moral decline. However, what causes these teens to become pregnant at such a young age?
A large body of research has identified a number of factores that underlie teen sexual and contraceptive behavior, pregnancy, and childbearing. There exists a three part framework of the factors underlying teen pregnancy. There are biological antecedents, including gender, age, testosterone level, and timing of puberty. These factors are causally related to adolescent sexual and contraceptive behavior and pregnancy. A second group of antecedents can be viewed as “manifestations of social disorganization or advantage” (Kirby, 1997). These include factors in the community and the family such as violent crime, poverty, unemployment, family marital disruption, parents’ lack of education, poor child rearing practice, lack of parental support, and inappropriate sexual pressure or abuse. The second group also includes factors in the individual teen such as lack of religious affiliation, drug and alcohol use, engaging in risk behaviors and deviance, delinquency, poor educational performance, and low expectations for the future. A third group of antecedents are attitudes and beliefs about sexual behavior and pregnancy. These include beliefs, personal values, and perceived norms. Among the many factors which may lead to teen pregnancy, the four that are most predictive of early pregnancy are poverty, early behavioral problems, family problems, and a low self esteem.
There are several theories about the reasons why so many young women in poverty become pregnant and carry to full term. Faced with an unintended pregnancy, many teens living in poverty are likely to view early childbearing as a positive, desirable choice. These teens feel that becoming pregnant may in fact improve their lives. Economics may also be responsible for the lower percentage of poor teens who terminate their pregnancies, since Medicaid policies in most states do not pay for abortions, but do pay for services related to childbirth. In addition, some researchers postulate that teenagers consider having a baby as a conscious desire to become welfare dependent. These teens deliberately become pregnant and have babies in order to collect welfare and set up their own households. However, teen mothers are more likely to live in poverty than women who delay childbearing, and nearly half of unmarried teens receive welfare at some time within two years of giving birth.
Many pregnant teens believe that their babies will lead lives very different from their own. Poor, inner city, undereducated women live with drug addiction, violence, and a sense of hopelessness. Therefore they feel that by having a child will improve their lives, when in fact they are only exposing their child to the same life they lead. In addition, poor teenagers are more sexually experienced than those of higher incomes, yet they use contracetption less frequently and less successfully, and thus they have higher rates of pregnancy (Trickett, 20).
Chances of higher education and well paying jobs diminish substantially for teen mothers. One study documented that teens that prioritize education and future occupations were less likely to become teen parents and they delay their first sexual intercourse. Similarly, poor grades are related to the early initiation of sexual behavior. The direct results of teenage pregnancy frequently include high dropout rates, for one in three pregnant teens do not complete high school. On average, pregnant teens complete fewer years of school.
For teens in abusive relationships, sexual and physical violence are often connected. Pregnant teen women often have a history of physical, sexual, and/or family violence. Teens who have experienced childhood or adolescent sexual abuse also have greater sexual vulnerability, which increases the risks of unintended pregnancy and further abuse.
Girls who were sexually abused as children are far more prone to risky sexual behavior and early pregnancy as adolescents. In a sample of 500 teen mothers, two-thirds had histories of sexual and physical abuse. According to Trickett of Women’s Health Weekly, "this shows that while the sexually abused girls are having more sex and thinking about it more, they're also having more negative thoughts about the experience and feeling more pressure" (Trickett, 19). Many teens that have experienced childhood sexual abuse don’t believe that they can control what happens to them or their bodies. They may have difficulty making choices that prevent them from exposure to further abuse or unintended sexual consequences, such as pregnancy.
Another reason for the increase in teen sexual activity is that the age of puberty slowly has been dropping. Since puberty is reached now by even preteens, the sexual drive amongs teens has increased. The age for sexual activities is becoming younger and younger. Since these teens are so young, they have not been properly educated about the risk of teen pregnancy. They are also less likely to use contraceptive, and if used they are generally used improperly. The dramatic increase in sexually permissive attitudes among the young has recently been proven. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, for example, 47% of respondents ages 18-29 said that premarital sex is not wrong at all, compared to only 12% of people in the 65 and over age category. In addition, contraceptive use has increased, but the use is often inconsistent and in any event is not enough to offset the increase in sexual activity (Wall Street Journal, A26).
Some teens have a low sense of self-esteem that makes them vulnerable to peer pressure whereas others have an overly inflated view of themselves and their ability to avoid negative consequences, which increases risk-taking behaviors. Early sexual behavior has been realted to various types of risk taking behaviors, such as alcohol, drugs, and delinquency. For example, alcohol and drug use appear to lower teens’ inhibitions and decrease the likelihood of contraceptive use. Kirby’s research on teen pregnancy concludes that sexual activity seems not to be related to self-esteem (Kirby, 1997). Boys and girls with high and low self-esteem are equally sexually active. However, self-esteem is linked with effective contraceptive use. Those teens with high self-esteem are more likely than other teens to use contraceptives responsibly and effectively.
However, some researchers feel that a low self-esteem is a large contributor to teen sexual activity and pregnancy. For example, a teenage girl with a low self-esteem may intentionally attempt to become pregnant. This is an attempt to exert control over others, such as boyfriends or parents. Similarly, a teenage girl may want a baby in a wish to have someone to love, who will in turn love them.
There is growing agreement within the research community that one of the most important factors in retarding teen sexuality and pregnancies is the disapprobation of society, especially of one's family and peers. A recent large-scale study found that parents' attitudes and relationships with their teen children could be highly influential. The study concluded: "parents who give dear messages about delaying sex have children who are less likely to have early intercourse." Early childhood experiences can make all the difference. Higher levels of parent to teen communication have been related to less permissive sexual attitudes, whereas poor communication with parents and lack of parental support has been linked to earlier initiation of sexual activity. Both high levels of parental supervision and close relationships between adolescents and their parents were related to later timing of teen sexual activity. In addition, parental marital disruption and living with a single parent is associated with the early onset of sexual behavior. This finding probably reflects such factors as lower family incomes, less partental supervision, and parental modeling.
The large, complicated, and interrelated accumulation of factors suggest that the course that leads to adolescent sexual activity and pregnancy is complex. Kirby states that “not merely one or two, but a multitude of antecedents are related to one or more sexual behaviors and pregnancy, including characteristics of the teens themselves, their peers and sexual partners, their families and their communities and states” (Kirby, 1997).