Teen Pregnancy is “Contagious,” Study Says


A study of more than 40,000 Norwegian women has led researchers to the conclusion that teenage pregnancy is “contagious.”  While they could not have chosen a more unfortunate word to describe their findings, what they meant is not that teen pregnancy is an infectious disease, but rather that young women were more likely to get pregnant  if they had a sister who had recently had a baby.   This “peer effect” was, according to the researchers, stronger than the impact made by educational institutions in preventing teen pregnancy.

Leaving aside my objections about word choice (although for a trenchant critique of the ways that the mainstream media positions teenager pregnancy as an “epidemic,” see Kierra Johnson’s piece from last summer), the study has some interesting insights, as well as some potential downfalls.

The analysis was based on data gathered in the late twentieth century, among Norwegian women who gave birth in the 1970s and 1980s.   It found that while staying in school longer did decrease the probability of a teenage pregnancy, the effect of a sister with a baby was still weightier than educational factors.  The study looked at births rather than conceptions, perhaps also indicating that a sister with a child increased the likelihood of a teenager’s decision to keep her baby.

“Two groups were particularly vulnerable,” explained Carol Popper, one of the researchers, “those in low income households and sisters close in age.”

The fact that this analysis is based on decades-old data raises questions about whether this has more to do with households’ attitudes toward birth control, and birth control access.  If one sister has trouble getting birth control because of family or financial restrictions, then it stands to reason that another would as well.

Similarly, if a family is opposed to abortion, it’s less likely that one sister would terminate her pregnancy while another kept hers.  Although an older sister’s outlook on teenage sex and pregnancy could influence her younger siblings, it seems probable that a number of other factors are present — and that young women are not “catching” teenage pregnancy from their older sisters.

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Does Reality TV Encourage Teenage Pregnancy?

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90 Girls Pregnant at Memphis High School

Photo from Polina Sergeeva via flickr.


LMj Sunshine

Interesting article and comments, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Interesting article and comments, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Interesting article and comments, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Interesting article and comments, thank you.

Rosemary G.
Rosemary G5 years ago

Couldn't the right education help these girls before they destroyed their lives & their babies?

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

"I was fundraising earlier in the week and 3 young women (maybe 16 to 19, or so) came towards me. All three were attractive, slim, with little baby bumps in their tummies.".........Kathleen, I've noticed the same thing, and also observed that they will be wearing the most skin-tight clothing possible, as if they're showing off the fact that they have conceived. I may be out of "fashion", but at one time, we were advised to wear somewhat loose-fitting and elastic clothing, to make allowances for our growing bodies. What's with the form-fitting and skin-tight jeans and tank tops?

Anastasia F.
Anastasia F5 years ago

I wonder if what's really contagious is the limited access to accurate information about sex and to contraception-- ot necessarily in Norway but in the US.

Catherine O Neill
Catherine O5 years ago

2 yrs ago my granddaughter had to take care of an electronic doll for the wknd.It registered every time doll cried got feed etc. Trust me it cured her of even thinking abt having a baby.But I feel that teenage boys should be sent home with one.Let's be honest it takes 2 to Tango.

Claire M.
Claire M5 years ago

Teen pregnancy rates are directly related to the over sexualization of young girls in the media and lack of knowledge or inability to access [depending on where] services and goods that prevent or end unwanted pregnancies.

Actual logic tends to be inconvenient to hype.

Kathleen D.
Kathleen D5 years ago

I so agree P.B., but, it's like trying to pull a horse to water then forcing it to drink. You can't. Providing kids a good program within the schools and promoting 'prevention' of disease and pregnancy is more important than telling kids not to have sex. Emphasizing abstinence goes along with any good educational program but, again, prevention should be the emphasis.
A month or so ago, I saw a teen with a adults at Costco. I noticed a very pretty young woman coming toward me with a baby in her arms and as she got closer, I realized the baby was a doll. She had the diaper bag with bottles in holders (the whole kitten ka-boodle) and I'm sure that was part of a program she's required to take. I've read of these educational programs in schools and they are regarded as quite effective. The teen is required to change diapers, carry the doll wherever they go, feed, burp, put down for a nap, get baby up, bathe, dress, etc. These teens need to know the ramifications of having a baby at such a young age hurts both mother and baby and, especially baby!