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.
Photo from Polina Sergeeva via flickr.
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