Birth rate among US teens declines

Economic crisis may be a factor, researchers say

By Rob Stein
Washington Post / April 7, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The rate at which teenage girls in the United States are having babies has dropped, according to the latest government statistics released yesterday, raising hopes that an alarming two-year increase in teen births was an aberration.

Births among US girls ages 15 to 19 fell 2 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the federal analysis of birth certificates nationwide, reversing two consecutive years of increases that had interrupted a 34 percent decline and caused alarm that one of the nation’s most successful social and public health successes was faltering.

“This is good news,’’ said Stephanie J. Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics, which released the preliminary analysis. “It might come as a surprise because people were concerned the teen birth rate was on a different course.’’

Ventura and others said it was too early to know whether the trend would continue in 2009 figures. But she speculated that it might because it was part of a broader drop in the birth rate for women of all ages — except those 40 and older — and that appears to have continued at least another year. The reason for the drop remained unclear, though specialists offered several possible explanations, including the poor economy.

“The economy may have had some role,’’ Ventura said. “The economic downturn has been so severe that many people may be rethinking a lot of things, including having children.’’ But others argued that it was unlikely the economy was responsible and said it was probably a combination of factors.

“It is not possible to fully explain what accounts for changes in the teen birth rate, especially in any given, single year,’’ said Sarah S. Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies. “It went up a bit between 2005 and 2007 and now is down a bit in 2008. In fact, one view is that the rate has sort of plateaued and is now varying — bouncing around a flat line.’’

Whatever the cause, the trend was hailed by advocates across the ideological spectrum.

“We are very pleased with this good news,’’ Brown said. “If there had been a third year of increase in the rate, the two-year ‘uptick’ in teen births would have become a troubling trend.’’ Others cautioned that the trend may instead represent a stalling in the decline in teen births.

“I think it is hard to make any pattern out of the last three years, other than to say that we are no longer making steady progress,’’ said John Santelli of Columbia University.

The rate dropped the most — 4 percent — for the oldest teens: those 18 and 19. The rate had increased 6 percent between 2005 and 2007 for this group, halting a 26 percent decline between 1991 and 2005. The rate fell 2 percent for those 15 to 17. The rate for this age group had increased 4 percent between 2005 and 2007, interrupting a 45 percent decrease between 1991 and 2005. The rate among those 10 to 14 remained unchanged.

The rate fell among all races, but hit a historic low for Hispanics.

The report was released as President Obama launches a $110 million teen pregnancy-prevention program that is being closely watched to see whether it includes funding for any controversial programs that focus on encouraging abstinence until marriage.