By Heather Brown

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – In 2013, Hennepin County reported a 15 percent drop in the number of babies born to teenage mothers. Across the state, the decline was nine percent and nationwide, it was 10 percent.

The county credited programs that divert teenagers from risky behaviors or help them stay safe when they do have sex.

“Our young people are making smart decisions, thanks to a lot of support from a range of community partners,” Katherine Meerse, manager of Better Together Hennepin, the county’s teen pregnancy prevention initiative, said.

But despite the successes of the programs, there are other factors at play. The teenage birth rate has been dropping steadily across the country since the early 1990s.  In Minnesota, which mirrors the nation, there were almost 37 births for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 in 1990.  In 2012, the rate had fallen to 19 in 1,000.

So, why has the teenage birth rate fallen so much? Good Question.

“It’s all speculation and best guesses by people who work in the field as to what’s going on,” said Jill Farris, director of training and education at Teenwise Minnesota.

Farris points to a number of potential reasons.  First, she said teenagers are waiting longer to have sex.  According to the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey, 29 percent of 9th graders reported having sex in 1991. That percentage dropped to 18 percent in 2001.  Last year, it was 15 percent.

Access to healthcare and better contraception is another factor.  Research from the Guttmacher Institute found 86 percent of the decline in the teen pregnancy rate from 1995 to 2002 was due to improvements in teenage contraceptive use.  After analyzing data from 2006 to 2010, Guttmacher researchers also found increased contraceptive use to be the major contributing factor.

Condom use is still far and away the most popular birth control method among teenagers. But its usage has leveled off after rising in the 1990s and early 2000s.  At the same time, the use of long-acting reversible contraceptive methods (IUDs, implants, shots, rings) has increased.

Farris said contraceptive counseling techniques have shifted away from just asking them what forms of birth control they’ve heard about.

“I think the conversation shifted a little bit for us to start with, ‘Let me tell you about the most effective method,’ and starting there and working back from that,” she said.

Experts also credit a shift in how older people talk with teenagers about sex.

“I think we have a generation of parents who are a little more realistic about needing to talk to their kids about sexual health,” said Brian Russ, executive director of Annex Teen Clinic. “One of the things we’ve learned is we can’t approach a conversation about sex with young people just once. It can’t [just] be the talk. It has to be over time.”

Farris also points out that the teenage birth rates for foster children, for young people in the juvenile justice system and in communities of color are still high.  According to Hennepin County, the data reveals a 14-fold difference in teen birth rates across cities.

“It’s tempting sometimes to say, ‘We’re doing great, we’ve fixed this,’ [but] that’s not true for every population,” Farris said. “It’s really important to keep the push on.”

Heather Brown