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.