Beyond the Pro-Life v Pro-Choice Debate

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC in the United States publishes an annual report on the birth rates of US teenagers. The agency whose corporate mission is “saving lives and protecting people” states, “childbearing by teenagers continues to be a matter of public concern because of the elevated health risks for teen mothers and their infants.”

In its most recent report dated April 2012, the Center finds that the birth rate recorded for 2010 hit “a historic low” for all ages and ethnic groups. At 34.4 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, the figure for 2010 was down 9 percent from the previous year, 44 percent from the recent peak of 61.8 in 1991, and 64 percent beneath the all-time high of 96.3 recorded in 1957.

The figure below taken from their website tells the story. Birth rates across two age groups, legal aged 18-19 year olds and under-aged 15-17 year olds have been on the decline following the post-war baby boom era of the 1950s. The 2010 results should provide comfort to those worried about the “Juno effect” named after the movie of the same title which was said to have presented teenage pregnancy in a positive light.

The picture would seem even more encouraging if we viewed teenage birth rates as a proxy indicator for teenage pregnancy which is harder to measure given the number of unreported abortions. Religious education makes abortion unpopular among conservative circles, and movies like Juno have made it less so among liberally minded ones. If we assume that abortion rates among teens have remained steady or even declined in this time, then it appears teens are taking “proper precautions” to avoid falling pregnant.

When split by ethnicity, the story stays consistent albeit somewhat dispersed. We can see from the next figure also taken from the CDC website that from 1991 to 2010 black and Latino teens tended to have higher birth rates when compared to non-Hispanic whites and Asian teens (twice that of the former and five times that of the latter) even though these birth rates have been declining across all ethnic groups for the last twenty years.

What is startling from the chart is that non-Hispanic blacks now have a lower birth rate among teens compared to Latinos having seen their rate fall from 118.2 per 1,000 women in 1991 to 51.5 in 2010. Latino teens on the other hand, saw their birth rates fall from 104.6 to 55.7 in the same period. Among whites it went from 43.3 to 23.5 and among Asians and Pacific islanders it went from 27.3 to 10.9. Across the board, the rate went from 61.8 to 34.4 although in the Southern states upwards of 40 births per 1,000 women is observed compared to the Northern ones which have less than that figure. Without the decline, the CDC estimates that there would have been 3.4 million more births among teenagers during the period from 1991 to 2010.

We can tell from US census and labor force survey data that Hispanics and blacks generally have higher poverty and unemployment levels compared to non-Hispanic whites and Asians. In addition, Southern states which tend to have a higher concentration of Latinos tend to also have lower incomes on average per head of population.

If you correlate these figures, what you will probably find is that teenage birth rates (and by extension teenage fertility) are significantly higher among those ethnic, regional and income groups that are generally regarded as being socially disadvantaged. We can speculate as to the reasons for this of course—from the lack of education, economic opportunities, access to reproductive health services, the influence of media, and so on. Whatever the reason, these facts remain.

When we look across countries, the same facts would appear to be incontrovertible. The following chart was taken from the World Bank Development Indicators and generated through Google’s public data explorer. It shows teenage birth rates from different regions in the world as well as the Philippines. We find a similar pattern as per the American case.

The adolescent fertility rate across the globe has fallen in recent years from 67.5 births per 1,000 women in 1997 to 53.4 in 2010. Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America have the highest birth rates among young women at 108, 73 and 72 in that order. The Middle East (37), North America (31), Eurasia (27), and East Asia and the Pacific (19) have lower than world average birth rates. The Philippines bucked the world trend because it saw its teenage fertility rise from 49 in 1997 to 54 in 2007 before declining back down to 49.5 in 2010.

Compared to where it is situated on the map, the country has nearly 2.5 times the teenage fertility rate of its East Asian and Pacific Islander counterparts. Perhaps this would lend some credence to the notion that Filipinos are the “blacks of Asia” as their teenage pregnancies are comparable to African and Latino Americans who I have already said trail non-Hispanic whites and Asian Americans in reducing adolescent fertility.

Beyond Just Facts and Figures

I raise this point because in the highly polarized debate over reproductive health, the one thing I believe that opposing parties to the discussion seem to agree on is that teenage fertility is something that is to be avoided. Catholic Filipinos who are by inclination “pro-life” would wish for their daughters to delay having children until after they complete their education.

I recently attended a baptism/wedding celebrated by a tightly-knit group of devout Catholic families here in Australia. The bride and groom had in fact met at a Youth for Christ camp; the parents on both sides were from Couples for Christ. During the ceremony, I noticed how well this community supported the bride/mom and groom/dad both aged 18 with their prayers and “unconditional love”.

There were not a few tears shed by both family and friends when the traditional speeches were delivered at the reception. I began to get an insight into the way the community viewed what had happened. Although, they celebrated the coming into the world of a new person, the word “mistake” was bandied about in reference to the pregnancy. In fact I learnt that when the groom’s father initially spoke to the bride’s father to relate the news of the pregnancy, the word “atraso” (arrears) was used in describing it.

This is typical of the way I believe average Filipinos would deal with such a situation. Some in the community that I got a chance to speak with talked of the need to engage in responsible parenthood and, yes, make use of reproductive health services. Some blamed the lack of awareness-raising in the Catholic school in which the bride was enrolled. Suffice it to say, there is a greater openness towards the issue in Australia. In fact one Australian priest advised the parents of the teen couple not to force a quick marriage prior to the birth of the child.

What this tells me regarding the debate over reproductive health is that while the mouth-pieces for religious conservatism in the Philippines oppose any form of reproductive health education and services in schools and state-sponsored health clinics, their followers by and large are probably much more pragmatic and sensible. The problem of course is that they cannot come out, and neither can their politicians, to actually support this in public.

While an angry minority within the religious Catholic Filipino community will denounce the reproductive health bill for what they see is the alleged promotion of abortion and abortifacients that it embodies, I believe most of their adherents actually are on the side of a more balanced approach to the issue. The notion that Filipinos are either pro-life or pro-choice is really a misguided way to frame this debate.

Most Filipinos subscribe to the notion that to have a child as a teenager presents many disadvantages, including the inability to complete an education and get ahead in life. While most if not all would welcome newborns into this world, they also recognize that this comes with great responsibility. Yet, the radicals on both sides have managed to inflame the debate. The fact that there are risks associated with pregnancies among younger and older women and that the proper precaution has to be taken to manage these risks has been obscured by the name-calling and demonizing.

Our religious and political leaders have to join hands and recognize that the will of the majority of Filipinos has to be heeded, and a majority of them when surveyed express support for the enactment of laws consistent with promoting reproductive health. By restricting their view of the issue according to a very narrow lens, the pro-life and pro-choice camps are not only doing a disservice to their countrymen, they are sewing a lot of division in the community, creating a fissure that would not otherwise exist.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy ( and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • Joe America ,

    What you are saying is that Catholics are defying their God by failing to do as the priests say. And the wealthier people are, the more they defy God. I would expect there is a causal relationship between education and wealth.