In 1960, one in 10 California women ages 15-19 gave birth.
By 1975, just 5% did.
What caused that phenomenal drop?
Not abortion. The teen birth decline was well underway before California legalized abortion in 1967.
Not sex education, which barely existed back then.
Two factors explain why 1960s teenagers reduced childbearing dramatically:
That’s how “win-win” public policies succeed.
Then, 1970s liberals, aping Republicans’ fear-mongerings over crime, drugs, and racial integration, launched their own phony moral crusade branding “teen pregnancy” a new “epidemic.”
The liberal solution? Sex education, which should be a basic human right, not a cure-all pushed with fear tactics.
Unfortunately, liberals chose to promote sex education by slandering young people, who had cut their birth rates 50% on their own, as ignorant and irresponsible. Conservatives countered with fabricated sex-ed horror-tales and pushed sexual “abstinence.”
From then on, it has been lie versus lie.
The ensuing 40-year squabble pitting sex education (which at best has marginal effects on pregnancy rates) versus “abstinence-only” preaching (which is completely worthless) suppressed crucial realities surrounding “teen pregnancy.”
As the culture war over sex-versus-abstinence education intensified in the 1980s, poverty and birth rates among teenagers reversed their previous declines and increased markedly.
That’s how “lose-lose” policies fail.
What schools teach and preachers preach don’t matter. The only important factor in “teen pregnancy” is poverty. It actually makes sense for some poorer young women to have babies earlier in life, when their health is best and extended-family members can help with child raising.
Conversely, where American teenagers enjoy low poverty rates like European and Canadian teens, they have low European- and Canadian-level pregnancy and childbearing rates.
In terms of “teen” birth rates, California’s impoverished Tulare and Kern counties resemble Myanmar. Wealthy San Mateo and Marin counties are like Sweden. Abortion and miscarriage gaps are even larger.
Research also shows pregnant teenagers typically suffered chaotic homes and childhood abuses. Girls who, in politically sanitized parlance, “initiate” sex before age 15 overwhelmingly had been victims of rape. A large majority of the impregnators of school-age girls are adult men, not school-age boys.
Interestingly, teenage motherhood was perfectly acceptable before 1960, when men age 20 and older fathered 90% of births by teen mothers. It only became a “social problem” in the 1970s, when teenage males started competing for teenage females.
A 1998 report by major “teen pregnancy” lobbies staunchly defended the social acceptability of adult men impregnating teenage girls while condemning teenage girls for getting pregnant!
That’s how crazy “teen pregnancy” discussion is.
Poverty, childhood victimizations, adult impregnators… the realities poorer teenagers face remain too rough for “teen pregnancy” interests to engage.
Instead, they demean teenage mothers’ babies as “economically costly”– another lie founded in long-debunked eugenics notions that blame women for producing babies deemed “inferior” because of their race and class.
The best, long-term studies find that poorer young women who have babies as teenagers get childraising behind them by their late twenties and enter the workforce when their earning potential is highest, actually reducing welfare costs.
And what does “costly” mean? The wasteful consumption, carbon footprint, and climate-change impacts of babies born to richer mothers menace humans’ future more than poorer mothers’ babies do.
Why did this happen?
Ignore the interest groups clamoring for credit. The reason is not sex education in California or contraceptive programs in Colorado. “Teen” birth rates also plummeted in abstinence-preaching states like Arizona and South Carolina.
Teens themselves are reducing births, especially those involving adult partners. The biggest factor, as in the 1960s, is massively more young women enrolling in higher education despite the high costs.
Young people are moving forward. Interests should do likewise by dumping their backwards “teen pregnancy” foolishness and advocating for increased education and economic opportunities for the disadvantaged young.
Mike Males formerly taught sociology at UC Santa Cruz and authored Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities, email@example.com. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.