Booming Babies: Prevalent Teen Pregnancy in Latin America and Caribbean

How did you spend World Population Day? Observed every July 11, this year was the twenty-fourth installment since its inception in 1989 by the United Nations. Around 360,000 women worldwide spent this day giving birth. Roughly 13 percent of these mothers were teenagers.

This year’s World Population Day focused on the deep rooted and expansive issue of adolescent pregnancy. A recent study revealed that Latin America and the Caribbean place second in the world, behind only Sub-Saharan Africa, in terms of adolescent pregnancies.

The question is, why? When discussing global issues that involve countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the poorest and most economically stagnant regions of the world, you might not expect Latin America to be in the same sentence. So why does Latin America, a region with noted educational advances and much improved social programs, continue to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world? Maybe the answer doesn’t lie in those categories. Or maybe it does.

This three part series will delve into the adolescent pregnancy issue that Latin America is facing. “The First Trimester” takes a look at the underlying numbers.

One should note that while Latin America does come in second behind sub-Saharan Africa in this category, the numbers are not close. According to the World Health Organization, the proportion of births that take place during adolescence in Latin America and the Caribbean is 18 percent in comparison to a whopping 50 percent in sub-Saharan Africa in the same category. Still, though, Latin America and the Caribbean greatly exceed the global average of 13 percent and make up the second region of the world where births to teenage mothers account for the largest fraction of total births.

The issue is even more severe in Central America, whose countries have the highest rates within Latin America. Those with the highest fertility rates, per 1000 women aged fifteen to nineteen years, break down as follows:

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Ecuador, with eighty-one births per 1,000 women in the same age group, tops in South America. This, for context, can be compared with recent rates of thirty-one in Canada and fifty-eight in the United States.

You may notice that the language in the previous statistics pertains to “births.” This obviously means that the numbers are skewed because in Latin America, a region where people tend to disapprove of abortions, doesn’t have them with the same frequency as other parts of the world, right?

Actually, no.

A study by The Economist in 2008 showed that Latin America had the highest abortion rates in the world with over thirty women out of 1,000 aged between fifteen and forty-four having had abortions that year. It also, due to the difficulties in having abortions carried out safely, had the second highest number of unsafe abortions performed — again behind Africa.

Chile, a country that characterizes all abortions as illegal, has the highest abortion rate in the region producing nearly 40,000 abortions annually. Colombia and Brazil, which have legalized therapeutic abortions, have rates of forty and thirty per 1,000 women of reproductive age respectively. This in comparison to countries such as Germany and The Netherlands, where abortion is legal and rates are less than ten per 1,000 women.

abortionThis graphic shows the abortion rates for different areas of the world for the years 1995, 2003, and 2008.

The idea here is not to focus on abortions, or even their rates. The point worth mentioning is that the prevailing views in the region on such procedures do not have the outcome one might expect, as played out in the data.

An important trend, when seeking to understand this context, is the steady decline of overall fertility numbers across Latin America. The average fertility rate of 5.9 per woman in 1955 dropped to 2.4 as of 2005, with a further 18 percent decline of family size predicted by 2020. This trend does not extend to adolescents, though. What’s remarkable is in that same time frame teenagers have practically doubled their proportion of the fertility rate, from 8.5 percent in 1955 to 14.3 percent in 2005.

That’s an astounding transfer — far lower fertility in general but far higher participation among teenagers. Why has this percentage grown and resisted the overall trend? What are the reasons for teen pregnancy growth in Latin America, where it is the second highest in the world? I will discuss that and more in the “Second Trimester,” to come out on Monday, July 22.

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