Is teenage pregnancy cool?

The trend is only at the movies

- January 29, 2008

Michael Cera and Ellen Page star in the movie Juno.

Don Langille shakes his head as he scans the headlines: “Teen pregnancy on the rise.” “Suddenly, teen pregnancy is cool?” “Babies are the new handbag.”

“It’s just untrue,” says Dr. Langille, professor of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University. “There is no evidence that teen pregnancy is on the rise in Canada at all.”

According to Statistics Canada, teen pregnancy rates decreased 38 per cent across Canada between 1994 and 2004, the latest statistics available. The figure is even more dramatic in provinces such as Nova Scotia and Ontario, where rates dropped by 45 and 49 per cent respectively in the same time period.

In 2004, 25 out of 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years of age became pregnant in Nova Scotia, down from 46 out of 1,000 a decade earlier. In addition, in recent years, a greater proportion of teenagers who become pregnant choose not to carry their pregnancies to term.

“Cool?” asks Dr. Langille. “I think the data flies in the face of that. To say that young women are having babies as a kind of fashion accessory … well, I don’t think the data supports that at all.”

The hot-pink cover of Maclean’s shows Oscar nominee Ellen Page in a hoodie, striped T-shirt and swelling belly. The story draws a link between pregnant Hollywood teen Jamie Lynn Spears (Britney’s younger sister), the teen pregnancy storyline of the movie Juno, and slight increases in teen pregnancy rates in the United States and United Kingdom.

While the cover story notes numbers aren’t rising in Canada, author Cathy Gulli suggests it’s only a matter of time. “Some experts say that when data does become available, we'll see the same rise as our neighbours,” she writes.

One of the experts she quotes is Alex McKay, research coordinator of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, a national nonprofit educational organization. A report by Mr. McKay in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality last May noted the rate of teen pregnancies in Canada had hit an all-time low.

“If there is an increase in one of the three countries, then we may — and I emphasize the word “may” — see the same thing in the other countries,” he says, on the phone from Toronto. “Looking at the rates of the three countries over the past 15 to 20 years, the direction tends to mirror each other.”

The Maclean’s story also notes that pregnant teens aren’t the outcasts they once were, and that there’s support for them should they decide to have their babies.

That’s probably true, says Mr. MacKay. “Teen pregnancy has always been seen as a disaster: Bad for the mother, bad for the child, bad for society. I don’t think it’s the disaster it once was.”

But this greater acceptance and support does not lead to greater numbers of teenage mothers, argues Dr. Langille. Falling teen pregnancy rates reflect the reality that young women are better informed and have greater access to contraception than ever before.

“Teens do have more support to deal with their sexuality and that may be one of the reasons we are seeing declines,” says Dr. Langille, whose research is focused on adolescent health. “There are some very good school programs out there, parents who are more communicative about sex, and better trained health professionals.”

The Dalhousie professor is currently conducting research in Yarmouth, N.S. which has above-average teenage pregnancy rates compared to other Nova Scotia cities and towns. Researchers are talking to young people there to find out about social norms, the experience of peers, interaction with the health-care system, and communication between parents and kids. “Once we find out why it’s happening, we’ll work with local professionals to see what we can do about it,” he says.

READ: Teenage pregnancy: trends, contributing factors and the physician's role by Donald Langille in the Canadian Medical Association Journal | Teen pregnancy study concludes first set of interviews in the Yarmouth Vanguard


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