The teen birth rate in the US plummeted 8 percent in 2015, dropping to an all-time low, according to newly released data.
The drop continues a year-on-year decline since 2007, the data show. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the data Thursday, says teen births have dropped 46 percent over the past eight years. The preliminary birth rate for 2015 was 22.3 live births per 1,000 teens between ages 15 and 19.
“The decline since 2007 has been phenomenal,” said Brady Hamilton, a demographic researcher who conducted the new CDC study and who said experts are still struggling to grasp the reasons for the precipitous decline.
Some experts have suggested increased access to contraceptives has helped to drive down the birth rate. After the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, many private health insurance plans began to offer birth control with no copay or deductible.
“A lot of young people now have access to health care they didn’t have before,” said Ena S. Valladares, research director at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, which works on policy aimed at curbing the birth rate among minority teenagers.
Teen births have fallen by almost half among Hispanic and black teens in the past decade, according to an April study released by the CDC. But teen births among those populations remain twice as common than among white teens.
“We still have high rates, true, but we’ve also made huge strides in contraceptive use,” Valladares said.
States have eased policies to make it easier for teens to access contraception over the past three decades. Currently, 21 states in the US allow minors to privately access contraceptive services without having to notify their parents.
Changes in access to contraceptives mirror the early decline in teen birth rates, which began in the 1990s. Teen birth rates continued to fall until 2002, when they leveled off.
When researchers tried to understand the reasons, they determined that it wasn’t that teens were having less sex; rather, increased or improved contraceptive was driving the decline in teen pregnancies.
It’s possible, experts say, that the same situation is playing out now. More teens are using contraceptives, and more effectively.
“Since 2007, there haven’t actually been any changes in sexual activity,” said Isaac Maddow-Zimet, a reproductive health researcher for the Guttmacher Institute, which is focused on advancing sexual and reproductive health rights. That, Maddow-Zimet said, suggests changes in contraceptive use is behind the recent plunge.
It remains unclear why effective contraceptive use may be increasing. Changes in sex education — the Obama administration cut back on funding for abstinence-only curriculums — might be partially responsible. Other experts suggest the 2008 recession has contributed to the falling teen birth rates, given that birth rates tend to drop slightly during times of financial crisis.
The new CDC data do show that the US birth rate declined across the board, though much less dramatically. The fertility rate of the general population was 6.25 percent in 2015, down from 6.29 percent.
It’s also been suggested that the increasing popularity of long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs — which are highly effective at preventing pregnancy — could be responsible for the decline. But the relative number of teens using the devices is still low, Maddow-Zimet said.
Researchers say more work needs to be done to understand the reasons for the declines.
“It’s a big question,” Maddow-Zimet said, “and I don’t think we know the answer yet.”