On a recent trip to my hometown, I was surprised to learn that an acquaintance from high school has a two-year-old daughter, and a friend from junior high has a set of toddlers. Both were unmarried when they gave birth (so much for the abstinence-only message preached by our Catholic schools) and both were in their early twenties. Although young, their ages weren’t that far off from the average age of a new mother in Ohio—24.7 years.
I couldn’t help but wonder if they would have given birth later—or earlier—if we’d grown up somewhere else. Indeed, a recently published study shows that where we live—and the geopolitical environment we grow up in—can influence the age we become parents.
Low in the North, High in the South
According to a report released in January by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been nationwide changes of ages of first-birth mothers since the last study. The mean age of first-birth mothers in the U.S. is twenty-five, and states closest to the average included California, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. This data marks the first time since 1968 that the mean age declined nationwide, and it shows that first-birth mothers in Ohio (along with North Dakota and Nebraska, where the average age is also 24.7) are younger than their counterparts in other parts of the country.
The average age of women giving birth for the first time varies considerably by state. Mississippi has the youngest state average age of 22.6; Massachusetts has the oldest average age of 27.7. According to the CDC, birth rates tend to be lowest in the North and Northeast and highest in the South and Southwest.
Stephanie Ventura, Chief of the Reproductive Statistics Branch at CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and one of the report’s authors, said that many of these differences are associated with variations in population composition by race and by educational attainment.
“Births to Hispanic women account for more than half of all births to New Mexico residents. Hispanic women have high rates of teen childbearing, a factor that would lead to a lower mean age at first birth,” said Ventura. She added that a few more years of data are needed to assess this trend more accurately.
Conversely, “educational attainment in Massachusetts is quite high, with large proportions of the population having college degrees. Well-educated women tend to have their first child at relatively older ages.”
Other factors also play a role. Ohio ranks near the bottom of states in availability of public funding for contraception services, and our laws and policies haven’t been favorable to making information about such services easily accessible. The fact that approximately 15 percent of women in Ohio aged fifteen to forty-four live below the federal poverty level or are uninsured doesn’t help.
Increases in Over-Thirty Pregnancies
Although women in the principal childbearing ages, twenty to twenty-nine, have historically accounted for the largest share of all births, the proportion of births to women in this range has declined over the past thirty years. Twenty-somethings accounted for 65 percent of first births in 1976; in 2006, that number dropped to 53 percent, as women younger and older began to give birth in larger numbers.
It’s important to note that birth rates for women in their thirties rose in 2006 to the highest levels in more than four decades. “This trend was underway when women began to enhance their educational attainment, through bachelors and advanced degrees, and men and women began postponing marriage and families,” said Ventura.
This fact appears to play a large part in the shifting percentages overall, especially because the birth rate for women thirty-five to thirty-nine has risen 50 percent since 1990. Successful pregnancies of women over thirty have a profound effect on increasing the average age in New York (where the average age of mother at first birth was 26.8 years), the District of Columbia (26.5), and New Jersey (27.2).
Using the most recent available data from birth certificates issued in 2006, the CDC report shows that the first birth rate for women of almost all age groups increased from previous years. The only exceptions were the youngest mothers, those under fifteen, for whom the birth rate declined slightly, and women aged forty-five to forty-nine, for whom the birth rate remained the same.
Teenage Birth Rates Increasing Nationwide
Yet a fourteen-year decline in the birth rate for teenagers fifteen to nineteen years old was disrupted by a recent 3 percent increase in teenage births in twenty-six states in almost all regions of the country. The teen birth rate increased an equal 3 percent for non-Hispanic black, Non-Hispanic white, and American Indian women, and 2 percent for Hispanic teenagers.
So what’s causing the increase? According to Ventura, “At this point we don’t have any explanation for this beyond the prevention messages that have been ongoing since the early 1990s.” For the past eight years, nationwide prevention messages focused on abstinence-only education instead of awareness about contraception, birth control, and condoms. Teen birthrates rose significantly in twenty-six states halfway through the second Bush Administration, perhaps because abstinence-only education doesn’t have a significant effect on delaying the number of partners that teenagers have.
Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America , said in a statement: “the failed policies of the Bush administration’s abstinence-only programs have wasted more than $1.5 billion federal and state tax dollars and left our country with the highest rate of teen pregnancy of all the most developed countries in the world.” Richards said that the CDC’s report reaffirmed what her sexual and reproductive health organization already knows. “Abstinence-only programs deny teenagers lifesaving, medically accurate information and do nothing to prevent unintended pregnancies.”
Many are hopeful that President Obama, who campaigned about the need for age-appropriate sexual education, will provide leadership beneficial to women’s healthcare. Richards said Planned Parenthood looks forward to working with Obama and the new Congress “to put the right foot forward and stop funding dangerous abstinence-only programs that deny young people information about how to prevent pregnancy, protect their health and make responsible decisions.”
I’m eager to see how his efforts will affect the Midwest, as well as the rest of the country.