Context: Differences among developed countries in teenagers' patterns of sexual and reproductive behavior may partly reflect differences in the extent of disadvantage. However, to date, this potential contribution has received little attention.
Methods: Researchers in Canada, France, Great Britain, Sweden and the United States used the most current survey and other data to study adolescent sexual and reproductive behavior. Comparisons were made within and across countries to assess the relationships between these behaviors and factors that may indicate disadvantage.
Results: Adolescent childbearing is more likely among women with low levels of income and education than among their better-off peers. Levels of childbearing are also strongly related to race, ethnicity and immigrant status, but these differences vary across countries. Early sexual activity has little association with income, but young women who have little education are more likely to initiate intercourse during adolescence than those who are better educated. Contraceptive use at first intercourse differs substantially according to socioeconomic status in some countries but not in others. Within countries, current contraceptive use does not differ greatly according to economic status, but at each economic level, use is higher in Great Britain than in the United States. Regardless of their socioeconomic status, U.S. women are the most likely to give birth as adolescents. In addition, larger proportions of adolescents are disadvantaged in the United States than in other developed countries.
Conclusions: Comparatively widespread disadvantage in the United States helps explain why U.S. teenagers have higher birthrates andpregnancy rates than those in other developed countries. Improving U.S. teenagers' sexual and reproductive behavior requires strategies to reduce the numbers of young people growing up in disadvantaged conditions and to help those who are disadvantaged overcome the obstacles they face.