Public health officials, educators, and parents of teens have reason to party! According to a new report from the Guttmacher Institute, American teen pregnancy rates are lower currently than they were back in 1975 when top 40 dance music included “Kung Fu Fighting” and “The Hustle.”

For decades, health and education advocates have been frustrated by US teen pregnancy rates that are the highest in the developed world. Between 2010 and 2013, over a million babies were born in the United States to girls between the ages of 15 and 19. Nearly one in five was a repeat birth, and approximately 80 percent were unintended.

Research tells us that kids do best when moms are ready. Young women who delay childbearing into their 20s have fewer pregnancy complications and healthier babies. They’re more likely to complete high school and college, and to end up financially secure. In the long run, their children tend toward better mental health, fewer learning disabilities, and fewer run-ins with the criminal justice system. Some of the high incidence of such problems among teen mothers and their offspring may be due to which girls get pregnant young, rather than the timing of their pregnancies per se. Also, some of the negative impacts could be mitigated by better services. Even so, a reduction in teen pregnancies is a good thing.

The debate has been about how to get there. Some communities—New York City, for example—have tried dire warnings, but they ended up shaming and angering young women who had already had babies. Health advocates fought hard to make emergency contraception available over the counter and won—only to be disappointed because the change had little effect on pregnancy rates. And our billion-dollar national experiment with abstinence-only education almost certainly made the situation worse.

Teen Pregnancy in Cascadia

Finally, though, things are looking up. For the Cascadia region, rates of teen pregnancy in Washington and Oregon are getting closer to those of our neighbors in the Great White North. Not that it’s a competition, but Canada’s pregnancy pattern has long been a source of envy among US youth advocates.

Statistics related to teen pregnancy, abortion, and live births typically focus on girls age 15–19, with some breakdowns separating out girls aged 15–17 from 18- and 19-year-olds. Pregnancies are reported as the annual rate for every 1,000 girls. In 2010, Canada’s rate for 15- to 19-year-olds was 29.2, while the US rate was almost double: 57.4. This means that in the United States, about 6 percent of girls get pregnant each year, and more than one in four gets pregnant before turning 20.

When it comes to teens and pregnancy, Cascadia does well compared to the rest of North America. In 2010, the most recent year available, British Columbia came in just under the Canadian national average, at 26.3. The Oregon rate at the time was 47 and Washington’s rate was 42, compared to a national average of 57.4. Newer Washington data show a downward trend that continued into 2011 and 2012, with almost 3,000 fewer pregnancies during those two years than would have been expected at the 2010 rate.

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  • For those seeking to advance broad, sustainable well-being, the ripple effects of this good news are hard to overstate. Thoughtful, intentional childbearing affects everything from maternal and child health, to education, to family prosperity, to local and state budgets, to long-term ecological issues such as resource sufficiency, biodiversity, and carbon pollution.

    That said, even Cascadians north of the border still have room for improvement. Japan’s teen pregnancy rate is a quarter of Canada’s.

    A Formula That Works

    Fortunately, we already have good data about how to continue the current trend and, eventually, make early unwanted childbearing a thing of the past. Broadly, research tells us that three factors reduce unwanted teen pregnancy: sexual health education that discusses family planning along with abstinence, broad access to effective and affordable contraception, and economic opportunity for youth at risk.

    Alexander McKay, research coordinator for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, attributes Canada’s success to this formula. The combination, he says, creates hope: “Teenage girls who feel optimistic about their career and educational opportunities tend to be less likely to become pregnant, versus girls who are feeling discouraged about their economic future.” Young moms agree. Skip the shaming, they say, and give us the tools.

    Girded with knowledge, tools, and big dreams, girls have the power to change the future—both theirs and ours.

    How can adults help? Questions about how best to create economic opportunity for young people are playing out all around us: in fights over the minimum wage, student loans, and income equality. Upcoming segments of this series will showcase concrete changes in the other two parts of the equation, sexual health knowledge and contraceptive access. Topics include better sex ed, over-the-counter oral contraceptives, community-based services that meet girls where they are, and a new approach to prenatal and postpartum care for young parents.