The rate of teen pregnancies in Canada has hit an all-time low and has fallen more dramatically than in the United States and England over the past three decades, according to new research.
The findings suggest young women are better informed and have greater access to contraception than ever before, said Alex McKay, author of the study published yesterday in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality -- though it does not mean teens are less sexually active or routinely engaging in safer sex.
"The current generation of teenage women in Canada is more knowledgeable about sexual and reproductive health than any previous generation. And that's a progressive phenomenon," Mr. McKay said in an interview.
"Basically, it reflects the increasing opportunities and capacities for young women to control their sexual and reproductive health to a greater extent than ever before."
The falling teen pregnancy rate has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in the rate of abortions, especially since 1994.
"Sometimes people assume that a drop in the teen pregnancy rate has to do with fluctuations in the amount of young women having abortions, but that's a misconception," Mr. Mc- Kay said.
"What we're really seeing is that fewer young women are becoming pregnant in the first place."
The decline comes despite studies showing that the average age at which Canadian teens have their first sexual encounter is holding steady at 16.5 years for both boys and girls. But Statistics Canada data from 2005 suggests 12% of boys and 13% of girls have sex earlier --by age 14 or 15.
But teens are not shy about getting information from a variety of sources that were not as readily available in the decades past, Mr. McKay said--from plain-speaking women's magazines to traditional media, to medical sites on the Internet, to health providers, to sex education programs at school.
Since 1974, when Statistics Canada first started collecting such data, the teen pregnancy rate has declined from 53.9 per 1,000 population ages 15 to 19, to 32.1 in 2003. Although there was an upswing between 1988 and 1994, the rate has been on a downward trajectory for the past decade, the study says. The slide was most pronounced among younger teens, slipping by more than half to just 16.8 among the 15 to 17 age group by 2003 from 33.9 in 1974.
The teen pregnancy rate also varies sharply from region to region. Six provinces had rates lower than the national average, with Prince Edward Island being the lowest at 23.4 per 1,000. The Prairie provinces, Quebec and the three territories had higher rates, with Nunavut's being five times above the national average. Nonetheless, Canada's teen pregnancy rate remains half those of the United States as well as England and Wales, though rates in those countries have also been on the wane. But Linda Capperauld, executive director of the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, does not agree with the study's finding that teens today are more informed and in control of their sexual health.
"At the same time as these teen pregnancy rates are declining, the rate of sexually transmitted infections is increasing at an alarming rate among young people and young women," she said. "What that says to me is that young women may be able to access contraceptive services, but they're not getting the kind of information and education and services that they need to make those decisions that will offer them dual protection from both pregnancy and STIs."
Figures from the Public Health Agency of Canada released in 2005 show rates of chlamydia, HIV, gonorrhea and syphilis are highest among females ages 15 to 19 and 20 to 24. While infection rates declined from 1992 to 1998, they increased every year from 1998 to 2002.
Ms. Capperauld said one factor may be that taking the birth control pill, the most common form of contraception, depends on the woman alone, while wearing a condom requires the co-operation of the sexual partner. Also, she said, there is a growing trend of couples abandoning condoms once they form a stable, long-term relationship. Mr. McKay agreed serial monogamy among older teens and twenty-somethings may be lulling many young people into a false sense of security about their sexual health.
"Serial monogamy ? means at the end of the day people are engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners. That would partly explain why pregnancy rates in young people have been declining while we have not seen an equivalent decline in STIs," he said. "It's a myth that younger teens are actually the more irresponsible [ones] when it comes to protecting their sexual health. In many respects the opposite is true. What we often see is that younger, sexually active teens are better and more consistent condom users than older teens and part of the reason for that is that their relationships become more unstable."
© National Post 2007