In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Adolescent Pregnancy

  • Introduction
  • Adolescent Pregnancy as a Social Problem
  • General Resources
  • Outcomes and Costs of Adolescent Childbearing
  • Pregnancy Prevention
  • Poverty and Adolescent Pregnancy
  • Policy

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Social Work Adolescent Pregnancy
Naomi Farber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0131


Since the 1960s, adolescent pregnancy and childbearing have been regarded as serious problems in the United States. The substantial attention and resources directed toward reducing pregnancy among teenagers have had some positive results, evident in the overall decline in teen birth rates since the most recent peak in the early 1990s. The birthrate for teens ages fifteen to nineteen has continued to fall in recent years and was at a historic low in 2011: 31.3 births per 1,000 females, representing a 25 percent decline since 2007 and a 47 percent decline since 1991. This means that about 329,797 births were to teenagers, the lowest since 1946. Despite this significant decrease in adolescent fertility, there continues to be a high rate of teen pregnancy in the United States relative to other industrialized countries, and disadvantaged adolescents remain disproportionately likely to conceive and become young unmarried parents. The multidimensional costs of early childbearing to individuals and the larger society result in continuing public commitment to reduce the incidence of adolescent pregnancy. As public interest has risen, research has proliferated, resulting in an enormous literature that crosses disciplinary boundaries. This article reflects the breadth of topics and diverse sources of knowledge associated with the general issue of adolescent pregnancy.

Adolescent Pregnancy as a Social Problem

Pregnancy and childbearing among adolescents are not exclusively modern occurrences, nor have they always been regarded as problems requiring formal response from the larger society through laws, public policies, education, and social welfare programs. Rather, premarital sex and pregnancy among women of any age historically were of concern only insofar as they resulted in childbearing outside of marriage, thus violating social norms and creating financial burdens for families and communities. During the 1960s, the phenomenon of teenage pregnancy began to be defined as a distinct problem separate from the more general issue of illegitimacy. Smith and Hindus 1975 shows that the history of premarital pregnancy from the early years of the United States includes wide fluctuations reflecting economic, religious, and other key cultural factors, demonstrating that patterns of sexual activity are not fixed and that they respond to a variety of influences. Demos and Demos 1969 provides historical context for adolescence becoming defined as a distinct developmental phase with normative expectations regarding sexuality, which is important for understanding the larger social meanings attached to adolescent sexuality. The significance of such historical context in the lives of particular cohorts of individuals is explicated in the seminal Elder 1978. Incorporating this historical view, Vinovskis 1988 and Luker 1996 each examines how the convergence of demographic, social, and political trends led to the identification of an “epidemic” of teenage pregnancy over the past several decades. Chilman 2001 is a significant scholarly contribution to the rising research focus on adolescent sexuality and pregnancy in the midst of social change. Under Hayes’s leadership through the National Academy of Sciences, Hayes 1987 provides an early definitive review of the research literature. Dryfoos 1990 provides a conceptual foundation for understanding sexual risk among adolescents in a broader theoretical and empirical context.

  • Chilman, Catherine S. 2001. Adolescent sexuality in a changing American society: Social and psychological perspectives. Honolulu, HI: Univ. Press of the Pacific.

    As the issue of teenage pregnancy became an urgent public issue in the 1970s, it began to receive intense scholarly attention. Chilman contributed a widely influential research-based analysis of sexuality among adolescents in the rapidly changing social context. Her work highlighted the complexity and challenges of negotiating the contemporary demands of biological, social, and emotional aspects of adolescent development.

  • Demos, John, and Virginia Demos. 1969. Adolescence in historical perspective. Journal of Marriage and Family 31:632–638.

    DOI: 10.2307/349302

    This widely cited seminal article examines the changes over time in the extent to which adolescence has been recognized as a distinct developmental phase. The analysis contributes an important perspective in understanding how definitions of age-appropriate behavior related to sexuality and family formation are time- and culture-bound. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Dryfoos, Joy G. 1990. Adolescents at risk: Prevalence and prevention. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a comprehensive analytic framework for understanding behavioral and theoretical dimensions of risk among adolescents. Places adolescents’ sexual risk-taking in an appropriately broad perspective.

  • Elder, Glen H. 1978. Approaches to social change and the family. In Turning points: Historical and sociological essays on the family. Edited by John Demos and Sarane Spence Boocock, S1–S38. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Elder’s chapter on the life course perspective in historical context has greatly influenced the literature on family formation among adolescents, informing the analysis of sexuality and fertility among cohorts of youth over time in relation to wider sociocultural factors. The volume in which it appears includes essays on a variety of topics from some of the preeminent scholars of the history of the family.

  • Hayes, Cheryl D. 1987. Risking the future: Adolescent sexuality, pregnancy and childbearing. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    This two-volume classic edited work brought together the best scholars across disciplines in the area of teenage sexuality, pregnancy, and childbearing to review the scientific literature and make recommendations under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. Both the chapters in Volume I and the working papers and statistical appendices in Volume II provide a comprehensive research base for defining adolescent pregnancy and approaches to prevention at the time.

  • Luker, Kristin. 1996. Dubious conceptions: The politics of teenage pregnancy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    The book employs a historical social-construction perspective to examine American political and policy responses to teen pregnancy. Luker argues that these responses “demonize” poor teenage parents as sexually irresponsible rather than attending to underlying issues of poverty and widespread changes in gender roles, sexuality, and family formation.

  • Smith, D. S., and M. S. Hindus. 1975. Premarital pregnancy in America, 1640–1971: An overview and interpretation. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 5:537–570.

    Provides foundational analysis of patterns of premarital pregnancies in early America. The authors find wide variations in rates, ranging from under 10 percent of first births in the 17th century to about 30 percent in the late 18th century. They examine these trends in the context of shifting religious, economic, and other wider social forces, presenting evidence of the fluidity in the occurrence of premarital sexual activity and conception over time. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Vinovskis, Maris A. 1988. An “epidemic” of adolescent pregnancy? Some historical and policy considerations. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Beginning with patterns of adolescent sexuality and childbearing in early America, this key work examines how adolescent pregnancy became defined as an “epidemic” requiring intervention through federal legislation and programs in the 1970s. The author argues for an explicitly historical perspective on how adolescent sexuality has been influenced and understood within the broader political and cultural context of American society.

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