Teenagers are having babies at the lowest rate
in at least 60 years, and everyone is taking credit—from
religious groups that push abstinence to advocates for
contraceptives and sex education in schools.
Analysts from several viewpoints agreed Tuesday on this much: Teens are more terrified than ever of sexually transmitted diseases, and they are putting off starting families to take jobs in the booming economy.
For every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, there were 49.6 births last year—the lowest level since the statistic was first recorded six decades ago, the National Center for Health Statistics said.
The rate dropped consistently throughout the 1990s, falling 20 percent for the decade.
“Teenagers frankly are more conservative sexually,” said Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “They realize that the risks in the 1990s were quite a bit different than the risks their parents took in the ’60s and ’70s.”
The drop was particularly sharp among girls ages 15 to 17, whose rate fell 6 percent from its level in 1998 to 28.7 births per 1,000.
Births fell 2 percent among 18- to 19-year olds and 4 percent among girls ages 10 to 14, said the statistics center, a division of the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Clinton: Encouraging Trends
The teen birth rate fell across racial lines, most dramatically among black teens, whose rate dropped 38 percent from 1991 to 1999.
“These encouraging trends cut across those younger and older teens, married and unmarried teens, all states and all racial and ethnic groups,” President Clinton said in a statement.
Clinton used the study as an opportunity to urge Congress to approve $25 million for what are being called “second-chance homes,” where teen parents can live and get job counseling and learn parenting skills.
Analysts said HIV/AIDS became mainstream enough in the 1990s to scare teenagers, while awareness of other STDs was at an all-time high.
They said ad campaigns, community awareness groups and even seeing friends have children encouraged teens to be more careful - or stop having sex altogether.
“In the past, abstinence was a joke,” said Bronwyn Mayden, executive director of Campaign for Our Children, which promotes abstinence. “It’s not a joke—it’s OK. Kids are really concerned about catching STDs.”
Government demographers credited pro-abstinence organizations along with a swath of other groups—including churches, parents and school sex-education programs.
“Young people more and more are telling us they want to hear from adults about sex,” said Tamara Kreinin, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which promotes sexuality as a natural part of living. “They want to hear about values, about relationships, about love. It’s very important for young people to have sexuality education.”
Peter Brandt, an issue response director for the Focus on the Family ministry, said more abstinence is the obvious reason why the birth rate has fallen. He said the notion that contraceptives should get credit comes from people who “play little tricks with the data.”
Jobs Considered a Factor
Even the country’s record-breaking economy may have something to do with the falling teen birth rate. As more jobs with good pay became available, some teens put off plans to have families.
The nation’s highest teen birth rate was in 1957, roughly 96 births per 1,000. Analysts pointed out that in the 1940s and 1950s, when the statistics were first kept, people married younger.
The statistics center also reported a drop Tuesday in births to unmarried teens, a record number of women receiving prenatal care and a rise in births by Caesarean section.
Last month, the CDC reported that the teen-age pregnancy rate fell 8 percent from 1995 to 1997 and has declined every year since 1991.
Even as they differed over why the teen birth rate has slowed, analysts said they hope teens would not tune out messages of responsibility. If the numbers continue to fall, they said, there could be fewer children living in impoverished homes with unprepared parents.
“Whenever we see good news on these social-issue fronts, people have the tendency to say, ‘We’ve solved this whole teen-birth problem. Time to move on to bicycle helmets,“‘ Albert said. “There’s too many kids turning 13 next year for us to get complacent.”