‘Trauma like we’ve never seen’: Girls’ advocates fear spike in teen births, maternal mortality

States with abortion trigger laws are already among those with the highest teen-birth rates. Public health experts who work with girls predict these abortion bans, many of which do not make exceptions for cases of rape and incest, will increase teen births and trauma.

Researchers also believe there will be an increase in maternal and infant mortality among teens who give birth.

Each of the nine states that have a teen-birth rate above 22 per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19 had so-called trigger laws that banned abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. Those states are: Mississippi; Arkansas; Louisiana; Oklahoma; Alabama; Kentucky; Tennessee; West Virginia; and Texas.

Gabrielle Perry, an epidemiologist who founded the nonprofit Thurman Perry Foundation to advocate for incarcerated girls and women, said while teen birth rates have been declining since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control, rates remain high in Southern states—many of which also have banned abortion.

The financial and human cost of teen pregnancy

Teen birth rates in the U.S. were at their highest in 1980. Teen births cost the U.S. government around $9.4 billion each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The $9.4 billion figure factors in increased health care and foster care costs, and lost tax revenue caused by “lower educational attainment and income among teen mothers,” according to CDC data.

Perry, who lives in New Orleans, said she believes the abortion bans will cause a steep increase in teen births, especially in states where abortion is inaccessible and teen pregnancy rates are already high.

“I think we are going to see a 180 (degree turn on teen birth rates). We’re going to see skyrocketing rates of pregnancy in teens and probably even younger. We’re going to see trauma like we’ve never seen in these girls, because now we have laws on the books that do not even account for victims of rape,” Perry said.

Izzy Thornton, a doctoral candidate at the Mississippi State University Sociology studies, said teenage pregnancies are often not detected until further along in the pregnancy compared to adult women. Thornton has been studying sexual wellness in Mississippi since 2009, and has worked with various organizations in Mississippi to improve access to reproductive healthcare and comprehensive sex education.

She anticipates an increase in infant and maternal mortality in states where abortion is banned, especially in cases where the pregnancy is concealed or ignored due to shame about the unintended pregnancy or lack of information about pregnancy and sex.

Other gynecologists have warned about the health risks for teenagers who give birth, which include death and major pregnancy complications like preeclampsia.

World Health Organization data shows around 770,000 girls under 15 give birth every year. Pregnancy complications are the leading cause of death for 15-19 year old girls globally, WHO data shows.

According to the American College and Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pregnancy is safest after a person’s teenage years.

Before Roe was overturned, the state already had means in place to essentially run out the timer on the window of time during which a teenager in Mississippi had the opportunity to have an abortion.

This is essentially what happened to a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio, who was unable to get an abortion because she was 6 weeks and 3 days pregnant. She traveled to neighboring Indiana to get an abortion.

There has been more fallout from that situation, including the Ohio Attorney General trying to prosecute Dr. Caitlin Bernard, the Indiana doctor who provided the abortion.

“[Increasing rates of teen births are] going to overwhelm a hospital system. It’s going to overwhelm these women. And honestly, it’s going to overwhelm the children that are born to them,” Perry said.

Children born to young parents are more likely to be unprepared for kindergarten and more likely to become incarcerated or become teen parents themselves, according to the CDC.

Thornton said there are better ways we could support young parents, and that we should be taking steps to make life easier for teenagers who give birth. Teenage parents have higher high school dropout rates than teenagers who don’t give birth.

“It’s frustrating because it doesn’t have to be this way. These avoidable outcomes are punitive by design,” she said.

These states have the highest teen birth rate (per 1,000 females ages 15-19). These states have more than 21 teen births per 1,000 females each year.

  1. Mississippi – 27.9
  2. Arkansas – 27.8
  3. Louisiana – 25.7
  4. Oklahoma - 25
  5. Alabama – 24.8
  6. Kentucky – 23.8
  7. Tennessee – 23.3
  8. West Virginia – 22.5
  9. Texas – 22.4
  10. New Mexico – 21.9 (does not currently have an abortion ban)

The states with the lowest teen birth rates (and no abortion bans) are:

  1. Massachusetts – 6.1
  2. New Hampshire – 6.6
  3. Vermont - 7
  4. Connecticut – 7.9
  5. Minnesota – 9.1
  6. New Jersey – 9.2
  7. Rhode Island – 9.4
  8. New York - 10
  9. Oregon – 10.1
  10. Maine – 10.6

What do we do about this?

Comprehensive sex education and access to contraception are two proven ways to prevent unintended pregnancies, especially teenage pregnancies, Thornton said.

Increasing access to long-acting birth control like IUDs (also called long-acting reversible contraceptives or LARC) has also shown to decrease the teen birth rate in Colorado and Delaware.

However, the issue of long-acting birth control still contains an element of control, especially in Southern states like Mississippi.

A survey of Mississippi doctors found that it was cheaper to have an IUD inserted than it was to have it removed, which Thornton said is one way efforts to prevent unintended pregnancies still control women’s reproductive decisions.

Many states with abortion bans and high teen birth rates also have bans on comprehensive sex education, which researchers at the University of Washington found makes adolescents less likely to get pregnant than adolescents who received abstinence-only until marriage sex ed or no sex education at all.

Thornton said she encourages people are concerned about teens’ sexual wellness should examine how our sex education and reproductive healthcare laws truly affect children.

“A lot is being done under the banner of protecting children. Some of those things are coercive and contradictory,” Thornton said.

Looking for better sex ed? Check out these resources for better sex ed for your family, community and congregation.

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm |

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

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