Teen Births Hit a New Low

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The national teen birth rate hit a record low in 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A recent issue of the agency's National Vital Statistics Reports shows that the birth rate for 15- to 19-year-olds in 1999 was lower than any other year since recording began in 1940. The 1999 rate of 4.96 percent beat the previous low of 5.02 percent in 1986.

The last year of the old century continued a decade-long trend in which teen birth rates declined for whites, blacks and Hispanics, as well as for every state in the nation and the District of Columbia.

"I think that this is incredibly promising," said Amy Stephens, manager of the Made4More Abstinence Education Department at the nonprofit Focus on the Family. Stephens attributed the decline to the mainstreaming of abstinence education and a cultural shift in the current generation of adolescents - contending that contraception has had a negligible effect.

"We really don't see that kids are better users of condoms," she said. "They might use condoms more at first intercourse, but over the long haul ... you're not really seeing these dramatic numbers. What you are seeing, however, is dramatic numbers on kids who are told to abstain."

Not so, says Deb Hauser, vice president of the D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, which promotes sexual education for youth. She cites studies showing that abstinence accounts for up to 25 percent of the recent decreases in teen births, with the rest of the decrease due to "increased contraception use, especially an increased use of condoms on the first intercourse, and increased use of Depo-Provera. ... We have young people who are taking their sexual health seriously. When you give young people information and service, they act responsibly."

Bill Albert, director of communications at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, believes contraception is one reason for the teen birth rate decline. "The short answer," he says, is that "teens are engaging in less sex and using contraception more."

The "long answer" is more complex and speculative: The campaign believes that teens are more worried about sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS; there has been increased public attention to teen pregnancy; there has been greater availability of more effective, longer lasting contraception, such as Depo-Provera; teens are taking a more cautious attitude toward casual sex; economic prosperity has provided more opportunities, and therefore more incentives not to get pregnant; and parents have been "stepping up to the plate" and "realizing that they haven't lost their children to popular culture."

Other findings of the CDC report include disparities between races and states, as well as an increase in teen smoking during pregnancy.

Teen birth rates in 1999 were highest for Mexicans, non-Hispanic blacks, Puerto Ricans and American Indians, and lowest for non-Hispanic whites, Cubans and Asian Pacific Islanders. Non-Hispanic black teens saw a 30 percent decline in the birth rate (to 8.4 percent) since 1991, dipping below the rate for Hispanic teens (9.3 percent).  

Albert said studies have shown that race alone is not a good predictor of early sexual activity or pregnancy. The more telling factor is economics.

The race trends are almost reversed when it comes to smoking by pregnant teens. The overall rate increased for the fifth consecutive year, rising 2 percent from 1998 to '99, to 19.5 percent. Non-Hispanic white 15- to 19-year-olds are most likely to smoke while pregnant (30.1 percent), with their non-Hispanic black and Hispanic counterparts at a distant 7.2 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.

The state with the highest teen birth rate in 1999 was Mississippi, with 7.3 percent. The state with the lowest rate was New Hampshire, with 2.4 percent.

Contact: CDC (301) 458-4636. 

- Amy Bracken