teen birthrates, BC vs. NW statesOne of the big surprises in this year’s Cascadia Scorecard was the uptick in childbearing from 2005 through 2007.  From all indications, the Northwest is in the midst of a baby boomlet.

The most disappointing news here:  teen birthrates inched upwards in every single jurisdiction in Cascadia.  It’s a surprising reversal following more than a decade of declines.

To some, the uptick may seem like small potatoes.  (I’m talking here about the relatively small upward trend in the lines at the very right side of the chart.) Obviously, teen births are still well below their early 1990s peaks. Still, the trends are now pointing quite clearly in the wrong direction. The increase has been sharpest in Idaho, where teen birthrates shot up almost 10 percent in just 2 years.  Yikes!!

Just to be clear:  most of these “teen” births are among women aged 18 and 19.  Births among minors are still a tiny share of overall teen births.  But that doesn’t mitigate the underlying problem:  the large majority of these teen births were not intended at the time of conception.  In Idaho, 68 percent of births to mothers in their late teens were the result of unintended pregnancies, as were 45 percent of births to moms in their early 20s, and between 28 and 30 percent of all other births.

  • Of course, “unintended” doesn’t necessarily mean “unwanted.”  The dividing line is perhaps a porous one; but technically, only mothers who say that they’d hoped never to have another child are classed as having had an “unwanted pregnancy.”  The latest figures I’ve seen suggest that somewhere between 7 and 8 percent of all births in the Pacific Northwest were technically “unwanted”  at the time of conception.

    That’s way too high, especially given all of the long-term benefits to both children and mothers of a wanted birth.

    But in the US, the share of unwanted pregnancies has actually risen in recent years.  This CDC report from last year shows that unwanted births in the US, as a share of total births, increased from about 10 percent to 14 percent from 1996 through 2003.  During that time, the “total fertility rate”—a calculation of the average number of births over a woman’s lifetime—remained constant at 2 births per woman.  But the “desired” fertility rate fell from 1.8 births per woman to 1.7—a sign that women in the US actually having more children than they’d prefer to.

    fertility rate chartThe rise in teen births is just part of a bigger trend towards larger families.  In most of Cascadia, birthrates were rising in every single age group. As the chart to the right shows, 2007 fertility rates in the Northwest states reached their highest level since 1990—the top of the last mini-peak in birthrates.  In fact, if fertility rates inched up at all during 2008, they may have reached the highest levels since 1972—when the post-war “baby boom” was just tapering off.

    There’s been a bunch of talk lately about ways to keep the Northwest’s population from growing too fast.  Justifiably so—population growth contributes to all sorts of problems.  But to me, it makes the most sense to start thinking locally:  what are the key leverage points that are mostly clearly within our own control?  And helping prevent unwanted pregnancies—by expanding contraceptive services, and helping ensure that every single child is born wanted—seems like one of the most important places to start.  As this USA Today article reports, the collateral social and economic benefits of investing in family planning services are simply too huge to ignore.