As social scientists and health educators grapple with causes of adolescent pregnancy in the United States, some researchers suggest that one component of the problem has been largely ignored. Though most adolescent pregnancies are accidental, a substantial number of girls want to get pregnant.
Susan L. Davies, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health and colleagues, questioned 455 low-income, African-American adolescent girls in Birmingham, Ala., aged 14-18 between 1996 and 1999, and found that nearly a quarter (23.6 percent) expressed some desire to become pregnant in the near future.
“Adolescent pregnancy research has predominantly focused on factors associated with pregnancy occurrence and overlooked the possibility that pregnancy is a desired outcome for some adolescents,” Davies says. Instead, she adds, successful pregnancy prevention programs need to discern between factors that contribute to intentional versus accidental pregnancies among teen girls.
In their research, published in the August 2004 issue of Health Education & Behavior, Davies and her team tried to identify some of those factors. Self-administered questionnaires asked participants about their desire to be pregnant, their relationships with males and their birth control use.
The most striking data revealed that adolescent girls with at least some desire to be pregnant were three-and-a-half times more likely to have a boyfriend or partner at least five years older, were more than twice as likely to have had sex with a casual partner in the six months prior to the survey and also more than twice as likely to have used condoms inconsistently in the prior month.
While the researchers say the likelihood of a significantly older partner was surprising, the frequency of girls with a desire to be pregnant having casual sexual partners was more telling.
“These findings suggest that the perceived role of the male partner in parenthood, other than to assist with conception, may be minimal from the adolescent girl’s perspective,” Davies says.
Considering that adolescent girls who want to be pregnant behave in ways that will help them meet their goal, researchers say, public health practitioners and policy makers will need to address this particular population with a tailored campaign. Some suggestions the researchers make include education to help this population understand the realities of motherhood, amending health education programs that assume adolescents regard pregnancy as negatively as they view HIV and other STDs, and increasing public recognition that adolescent childbearing is “a symptom of larger social and economic predicaments.”
The study was supported by a grant from the Center for Mental Health Research on AIDS, National Institute of Mental Health.