Dangers of Pregnancy Among Young Teens
The good news is that the rates of teenage pregnancy and births in the US have reached historic lows. The bad news is that for those mothers who are younger than 15 years old the story isn’t as positive. They often have worse medical complications to their pregnancies than older teenage mothers (aged 15-19). This includes things like no prenatal care, preterm delivery, increased fetal deaths, low birth weights and infant mortality. The reasons for such poor outcomes in this age group aren’t well understood, and improving our understanding of why this is happening will allow for better interventions to reduce the risks to this age group as well as to potentially reduce the number of pregnancies.
Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill are working to answer these questions. They recently published a paper which analyzed data collected from 2006-2010 by the National Survey of Family Growth. This survey used in-person interviews to collect information on topics including pregnancy history, contraceptive use, sexual behavior, sexual relationships, and use of reproductive health services. The 3,384 women whose responses were analyzed in this paper were between the ages of 20 and 44 and were sorted into two groups based on when they had their first pregnancy; before age 15 or between the ages of 15 and 19. The researchers then compared these two groups to see whether they could determine any significant differences between the groups.
There were some disturbing findings associated with the younger group. The researchers found that the women in the younger group were far more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors (such as lack of contraceptive use) during their first sexual encounter. Alarmingly, over a third of the women in the younger group reported that their first sexual partner was older than them by 6 or more years. In every state in the United Stated this is statutory rape. Just as upsetting, these women often reported that their first sexual encounter was involuntary or unwanted. This information along with the much greater likelihood of high-risk pregnancies occurring in this age group indicate that there needs to be improved methods to identify these at risk young women and that specific intervention strategies must be developed for them. A complication that exists and must be overcome is that, given the age disparities between the sexual partners, these high-risk relationships may often be hidden from their family and school officials and so may be difficult to identify. Therefore, it is important to educate all young women about the dangers of predatory relationships and to provide them with support and resources so they can develop tools to avoid such relationships. The information that this study begins to bring to light will help to better inform public health, social work and medical personnel so that they can continue to improve their outreach efforts to prevent teenage pregnancy especially among younger teenage girls.
I would like to give a shout out to the first author of this study, Dr. Marcela Smid. She and I went to high school together and I am proud to know a doctor who is committed to pursuing such important research topics and public health issues!
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