Research Roundup: Delving Into Tough Questions About Teen Pregnancy

A young couple holding hands.

Preventing teen pregnancy is complicated, to say the least. That’s because lots of things influence teen pregnancy and birth rates, from socioeconomic factors and poverty to relationship violence and cultural views of masculinity.

Researchers continue to ask what makes young people more likely to get pregnant or get someone pregnant, and what makes teens more likely to abstain, use contraceptives, and make other healthy decisions about sex and pregnancy. Here we look at three recent studies.

Does Experiencing Abuse Affect Teens’ Likelihood of Getting Pregnant?

A growing body of research has linked experiences of abuse and adolescent pregnancy. So a group of researchers wanted to pull together what we already know about the effect of particular types of abuse on young people’s likelihood of becoming or getting someone pregnant. The researchers reviewed and analyzed 38 independent studies, conducted in the United States and other countries.

Regarding physical and sexual abuse, the researchers’ findings were striking. Young women who had been physically abused were one-and-a-half times as likely as their non-abused peers to become pregnant. Young women who had been sexually abused were twice as likely. Young women who had experienced both types of abuse were four times as likely.

The researchers found no significant association between teen pregnancy and emotional abuse or neglect. They said we should be cautious in interpreting this finding because of the difficulty of measuring these factors and the limited number of studies on their connection to teen pregnancy.

Questions remain about the link between sexual and physical abuse and teen pregnancy. For example, the researchers did not have enough information to tease apart whether experiencing the abuse once had a different effect on young people than did going through repeated abuse. And most of the studies analyzed did not specify who had abused young people (family, peers, strangers, partners, authority figures). So the researchers could not look at the type of abuser as a factor.

Are Teens Who Feel Hopeless More Likely to Want to Get Pregnant?

Some researchers and teen pregnancy prevention advocates have suggested that many young people become parents too soon because they believe they have few opportunities for the future. To test the idea that hopelessness and positive attitudes toward teen pregnancy are connected, researchers looked at data from the Mobile Youth Survey, a multi-year study of low-income pre-teens and teens in Alabama.

Of the more than 2,000 sexually active girls and boys in the sample, 56 percent expressed what the researchers called “pregnancy desire.” These young people said they would be happy if they found out they were pregnant or had gotten someone pregnant or they wouldn’t care one way or the other. The rest of young people said they would be angry or unhappy at the news of a pregnancy.

Only 9 percent of youth said they were currently trying to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant.

Young people had also been surveyed about their feelings of hopelessness and self-worth. In general, youth scored high for hopelessness (compared to suburban high school students surveyed in another study). Youth who felt more hopeless and those with lower self-worth were more likely to have attempted to get pregnant or to have tried to get someone pregnant in the last year. But the researchers did not find a strong connection between hopelessness and young people’s positive or ambivalent feelings about getting pregnant.

What Makes Some Boys Choose Not to Have Sex?

A study of more than 600 teen boys in Indianapolis aimed to find out what attitudes, behaviors and family contexts influence boys to delay having sex. Researchers used “venue-based recruitment” to seek out boys who live in or near ZIP codes with high rates of sexually transmitted infections. Boys were interviewed at places where they normally hang out, rather than in a research setting or at an organization. Sites included parks, apartment complexes, theaters, schools, festivals and church street fairs. 

Thirty-eight percent of the 14- to 17-year-olds interviewed said they were abstinent. Younger boys were more likely to abstain, as were boys who said having sex was against their religious or moral values. Boys also were more likely to abstain if they had fewer conventionally “masculine values,” such as the belief that guys should be self-reliant, physically tough and ready for sex.

But not all abstinence is the same, the researchers say. Among the abstinent boys, about two-thirds planned to delay sex. The other third anticipated having sex in the next year.

“Delayers” most frequently said they abstained because sex was “against religion or morals” or they “[didn’t] want to get a female pregnant or get an STD.” “Anticipators” most often said they “[didn’t] want to get a female pregnant or get an STD” or “not the right time or person.” Very few anticipators said having sex was against their religion or morals.

Read the Articles

“Association Between Abuse History and Adolescent Pregnancy: A Meta-analysis” (abstract). Sheri Madigan, Mark Wade and George Tarabu. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 55, No. 2 (August 2014).

“Associations of Adolescent Hopelessness and Self-Worth With Pregnancy Attempts and Pregnancy Desire” (abstract). Anna R. Fedorowicz, Wendy L. Hellerstedt, Pamela J. Schreiner and John M. Bolland. American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 8 (August 2014).

“Factors Influencing Abstinence, Anticipation, and Delay of Sex Among Adolescent Boys in High-Sexually Transmitted Infection Prevalence Communities” (abstract). Teresa Cummings, Colette L. Auerswald and Mary A. Ott. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 54, No. 5 (May 2014).

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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