What is the “truth” about teen pregnancy and Latinas?

A couple of years ago, I started seeing some online news articles reporting on the rate of teenage pregnancy among Latinas.  What jumped out at me were the figures: over 50% of teenage Latinas, these articles claimed, had unplanned pregnancies.

Why did I find this startling? Well, as a Latino who knows lots of Latinas (many of whom are teens and many more who were) I just didn’t see this number playing out in real life.  Even in the grocery stores and shopping centers of East L.A., I never saw anywhere close to half of the teenage population of Latinas having babies.  Having family members who work in inner-city, Latino dominant schools, I also knew they didn’t see these kinds of figures playing out before them either.

The lesson here is, if the figures seem unbelievable, they probably are.

I am a historian, not a demographer or a public health official, but here is what I know.

1. The article I first saw, and ALL of the rest who cited this outrageous figures, got that figure from an organization called the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.  This organization seems to be good and interested in promoting both meaningful solutions to major social conditions and the creation of sound public policy, but that’s all I know about them.  That, and they have a board made up of high profile, though largely non-scholarly, figures.

2. The organization does not make it easy to find their facts and figures, but when I find similar numbers in their reports it is not accompanied by a methodology of a) what data they collected; b) how they collected it, and; c) how they analyzed it.  For other documents they produce, their data is collected by extrapolating from phone surveys and the like.

3. When you go the “Hispanic” data provided by the Office of Minority Health & Health Disparities, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control of the federal government, and you look at their most recent reports (like table 5 on this page) you do NOT get anywhere close to the same figures as are reported by the above “campaign.”

The OMHD reports that, in 2005, for every 1000 “Hispanic” women between the ages of 15 and 19 there were 183.1 births (statistically).  That’s made up of a the combined rate of births for 15-17 year olds (48.5 per 1000) and 18-19 year olds (134.6 per 1000).  That’s 18.31%.

So What Does This Tell Us?
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy said only that 51% of Latinas will be pregnant—at least once—before they turn 20 years old.

The official government data don’t suggest this is true, but they don’t outright disprove it.  The government (at least in the data I quoted above) only compiles the number of “live births” to “Hispanic” teenagers.  But, unless you think that about 30% of those Latinas resort to abortion, or think that there has been a huge spike in the rates for Latina teen pregnancy on the order of 100% in the last three years, then you have to conclude the figure of 51% is bad.

It’s 18.31% according to official figures for live births, and likely 20-25% or thereabouts for pregnancies overall.

The question then becomes, how can this organization be so off?  Well, there is the possibility they are not.  As I said, I don’t know and can’t seem to find out how they came up with their figure.  The figure may have been misunderstood by some news agency and then promoted virally in news articles over the years.  It may be from some study I don’t know or can’t find.  It can even be from the data I have found, but that I misread.

Or the organization may be wrong of may have been duped.  They frequently cite a study conducted for them, based on the data from a scholarly article published in 2006, “Disparities in Rates of Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 1994 and 2001” (by Lawrence B. Finer and Stanley K. Henshaw and from Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 90-96).  I read that article, and it provides figures similar to the above ones from OMHD (although it doesn’t not provide the data for unplanned pregnancies by age and by ethnicity together).  It does not prove the 51% figure. The study they commissioned from this sound scholarly article may have been flawed or, worse, intentionally fabricated.

There could be flaws in my own analysis, too.  As I said, I am just a historian (a damn good one) and not a statistician or public health demographer.

Let me suggest, another possibility: they might think they’re right but just can’t see they aren’t.  When presented with these figures, they might have run with them as a good tool to employ in fighting teen pregnancy overall, and especially within the Latina population.  That is their crusade and purpose.

They never questioned the data because, like many in institutions of power or representative of those institutions, they naturally assumed Latinas are more fertile and experiencing these high rates of teen pregnancy.

I don’t know.  But I’d welcome any suggestions, criticisms, or further information.

9 thoughts on “What is the “truth” about teen pregnancy and Latinas?

  1. I will look around tomorrow, but I used to have a particular interest in this as well coming from a Latino household. Off the top of my head they could be reading the tables backwards. Rather than 50% of all Latinas have unplanned pregnanancies, it is more plausible that 50% of all unplanned pregnancies among Latinas are among teenagers.

  2. Thanks. The numbers for “unplanned” skew much older overall, with something like 3 out of every 4 being women in adulthood to middle age. If I had to guess, I’d say the study they commissioned read the data wrong. With the rough 20% rate (still like 4 times higher than average, I think) they then extrapolated to add another 30% or so as abortion. It’s a misread because in the article cited above, the data they give is for ALL unplanned, with births and terminations folded in together. They estimate a third of the total unplanned end in abortion overall, a figure that likely skews middle class and white. We’ll see…

  3. I actually _am_ an epidemiologist, and this may help clear up your confusion:

    Click to access FactSheet_3in10_Apr2008.pdf

    Basically, the over 50% figure is a _cumulative_ risk of a Latina becoming pregnant before age 20 (that is, from the time she is fertile and sexually active to age 20), while the other rates you cite are birth/pregnancy rates for a single year per 1000 population. The comparable figure for all teenagers in the US is about 30%.

    Granted, the National Campaign’s methodology is an estimate, not an actual count, but their methodology is sound. (Consider that many pregnancies end in spontaneous miscarriage as well as abortions and births, and you begin to appreciate the difficulty of coming up with estimates like this.)

  4. Thanks for both the link and the explanation. I trust the methodology is sound. The way their resultant figures have entered public discourse, however, is a distinctly separate question. The assimilation of this data into the mainstream does NOT appreciate the distinction between “cumulative risk”, pregnancy rates, and the rates of teen motherhood. Further, it isn’t even making an attempt to do so. The result is a steady tide of articles—stretching back to 2006–translating the “risk” into something very different. I’m not sure this benefits the cause; I’m quite certain it does little for Latinos in this political climate.

    Thanks again.

  5. hmm.. the rates on the first table are for age groups, not cumulative for each age within that group. So a 15 year old has a 0.16% risk of getting pregnant for the three years, not 0.16% each year for that range. It seems the article is tripling the risk of pregnancy for each person in the 15-17 age group by assigning the age-group risk for each successive year. Also, the range for the first group is under 15, not for each person under 15 each year they are under 15. If I have mythical dice and I have a .16% chance of getting a certain combination after 3 rolls, my chance of getting that combination isn’t .16% times 3 for each roll. Indeed, the probability of getting that combination decrease after one roll. It doesn’t stay the same after that roll. So a girl at 14 who has a .16% shot of getting pregnant from the time she turns 15-17, and doesn’t get pregnant at age 15, her risk isn’t the same. Its lower. She has just avoided the risk for one-third of the calculated risk.

    Maybe I’m missing something.

  6. No, Table 1 gives rates per 1000 in a single year (which is the normal way to calculate birth and pregnancy rates). The age groupings are that way because those are the usual categories that teen preg./birth rates are usually reported in – younger teens have significantly lower rates than older teens. The rates in Table 1 are calculated by estimating the total number of pregnancies to girls in that age group in a year, and dividing by the total number of girls in that age group (population size) in that year, and multiplying by 1000.

    As you continue looking at the tables in the fact sheet, they explain how they account for some of the pregnancies being repeat pregnancies for a given young woman. (Although it looks like Table 2 is messed up – the right-hand column is the same as the RH column for Table 4, but actually the numbers in Table 2 should be larger because they’re not adjusted for subsequent pregnancies.)

  7. Thank you for your article. As a Mexican woman, I believe that education and discipline is necessary in preventing both teenage pregnancy and drug abuse. Sadly, here in Mexico, many people do not get the proper education needed to make the right choices. I do feel that the root of this problem is a lack of discipline–kids just are not raised the way they should be from the start.

    Here are some very informative articles, in Spanish, that I have read for the betterment of the family:

    We need to take care of our families and of each other if we are to make the world a better place to live.

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