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Better access to contraception, higher quality sex education and shifting social norms have contributed to a 36.9 per cent decline in Canada's teen birth and abortion rate between 1996 and 2006, according to a report released today by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.

"This is a good news story," said Alexander McKay, lead author and research co-ordinator at the council.

"It's important to look at teen pregnancy rates because they're a basic fundamental indicator of young women's sexual and reproductive health. While not all teen pregnancies are a bad thing, when we see [rates]dropping, it's a fairly clear indicator that young women are doing increasingly well in terms of controlling and protecting their reproductive health."

The report, which appears in the current issue of The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, compares Statistics Canada figures with numbers from three other countries. The United States experienced a 25 per cent drop while England and Wales showed a more modest decline of 4.75 per cent. Sweden's numbers, meanwhile, jumped by 19.1 per cent.

"It's not necessarily that sex education in Canada is at such a high standard," said Mr. McKay, who co-authored the report with SIECCAN's Michael Barrett.

"In comparison to the United States, we tend to have a more balanced, sensible approach to adolescent sexual health. Generally speaking what you find is that the more a society has an accepting attitude toward the reality of adolescent sexuality, the lower the teen pregnancy rate is. Canadians tend to have a more relaxed attitude towards adolescent sexuality than people in the United States."

Mr. McKay said America's emphasis on abstinence-only sex ed "tends to result in a higher percentage of teens becoming pregnant," as does the country's lack of universal health care. Poverty is another factor.

"The United States has large, well-entrenched pockets of inner city poverty and that clearly is linked to higher teen pregnancy rates," he said.

"In those communities where young women feel optimistic about their educational and employment opportunities, the [rates]tends to be lower."

Among the four countries compared for 2006, Canada boasted the lowest teen birth and abortion rate per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 (27.9), followed by Sweden (31.4), England/Wales (60.3), and the United States (61.2).

"Sweden is a low teen pregnancy rate country so even with an increase in its [rate] it still remains far below countries like England and the United States."

Swedish researchers have attributed the increases to two factors, Mr. McKay said: "a notable drop in the extent of sex education in Swedish schools," and more abortions.

"It's not that young women are viewing abortion as a form of birth control. Rather they do view it as an acceptable - although regrettable - way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy when it occurs."

Although declines were evident across the country, they varied widely by the province. The drop was greatest in Ontario (51.5 per cent) and the Yukon (51.8 per cent), and lowest in Saskatchewan (25.5 per cent) and Quebec (10 per cent).

The lesser decline in Quebec "was somewhat of a surprise," Mr. McKay said, because "Quebec has historically had comparatively low [rates]compared to the rest of the country."

Also a surprise was the Yukon's drop, the highest in the country.

"Generally speaking, it's been the case that the Yukon and the Territories and northern communities have had higher teen pregnancy rates," said Mr. McKay, noting that the Yukon has ramped up its sex ed programs and reached out to youth in recent years.

He stressed that the birth and abortion declines should not be confused with judgments about teen sexuality.

"Teenage women in Canada are not more or less likely to be sexually active than they were 10 or 15 years ago. The difference is that we have seen a steady increase in the percentage of sexually active young women who are using contraception. That comes mainly in increases in condom use but also increases in birth control."

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