America’s teen birthrate fell in 2008, ending a two-year upward trend, the federal government said in a report released Tuesday morning.
But this welcome news was tempered by evidence that the nation’s fertility rate has fallen below replacement level again, while the portion of births outside marriage crept up to an unprecedented 41 percent.
The 2 percent dip in teen births — from 42.5 births per 1,000 teen girls in 2007 to 41.5 per 1,000 in 2008 — was a relief to teen-pregnancy-prevention groups.
“We’re delighted that the uptick didn’t become a trend,” said Sarah Brown, president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and Unplanned Pregnancy. Still, she said, the nation needs to return to the steady decline in teen birthrates that started in 1991 and continued for 14 years.
“We don’t want this to stall out,” Mrs. Brown said of the new decline.
Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, also applauded the turnaround and urged the nation to “redouble” its efforts to “help teens avoid all the consequences of sexual activity, including teen childbearing.”
The Obama administration and Congress have created a $110 million teen-pregnancy-prevention program to replace the Bush administration’s push for abstinence education.
The abstinence education initiative recently won a reprieve, however. A measure by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, to continue the five-year, $50-million-a-year federal funding for the Title V Abstinence Education grant program was signed into law with the massive health care package.
Tuesday’s preliminary 2008 birth data, released by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), estimates that American women had 4,251,095 births, about 66,000 fewer than in 2007.
This caused the U.S. total fertility rate to fall slightly, to 2.0 children per woman. This means the country is again at “below replacement” fertility, or doesn’t have enough children being born so that “a given generation can exactly replace itself,” the NCHS said.
After decades of subpar fertility, the nation reached a healthy “replacement” level of 2.1 children per woman in 2006 and 2007.
Underpopulation is associated with economic downturns, aging populations, stress on pension and social welfare programs, and a need to import more immigrants to make up the numbers.
The new NCHS report also showed that while the birthrate to unmarried women declined slightly (from 52.9 births per 1,000 single women in 2007 to 52.0 in 2008), the actual number of such births went up (from 1,714,643 to 1,727,950, a 1 percent increase) — reflecting an increase in the number of unmarried women. In addition, the portion of births to unmarried women rose to a historical high of 40.6 percent.
Conservatives and traditional values groups consistently decry the rise in unwed childbearing because of its high social costs and negative effects on children’s well-being.
“The dramatic rise of unmarried births among 20-, 30- and even 40-something women has been one of the most troubling family-formation hallmarks of the last half-decade,” said Glenn T. Stanton, director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family.
“Many of these are women who would love to get married, but they hear their biological clocks ticking louder than the prospects of wedding bells,” he added.
Other observers caution that the unwed birthrate is often tied to the marital birthrate. Whenever married couples’ fertility falls, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births can go up, even if the rate of unmarried births is staying steady or declining, said Stephanie Coontz, professor of family studies at Evergreen State College and director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.
“Contrary to the doomsday projections that this statistic is likely to evoke,” she added, the big story may not be that there’s some continuing escalation of unmarried mothers giving births, but that the birthrates to married couples have fallen.
“This is a clear indication that the rising proportion of nonmarital births is a pervasive social phenomenon,” said Steven P. Martin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.
According to the NCHS report, “Births: Preliminary Data for 2008”:
• The number of births in 2008 was 4,251,095, down nearly 2 percent from the historical high of 4,317,119 in 2007.
• While the overall teen birthrate fell 2 percent, the largest decline (4 percent) was among the college-age teens. There was no change in the birthrate (0.6 per 1,000) among girls ages 10 to 14.
• The birthrate for Hispanic teens fell to a record low 77.4 births per 1,000.
• Birthrates also fell among women in their 20s — by 3 percent for women ages 20 to 24 and 2 percent for women ages 25 to 29. Rates for women in their 30s also fell, by 1 percent.
• However, the rate of births to women in their 40s crept up. In 2008, the birthrate to women ages 40 to 44 reached 9.9 births per 1,000 women, the highest since 1967. Rates for women 45 to 49 also rose, from 0.6 births per 1,000 to 0.7 births per 1,000.
The report also found that for the second year in a row, a smaller share of babies were born prematurely, defined as before 37 weeks of gestation. The rate declined 3 percent, from 12.7 percent of all births in 2007 to 12.3 percent in 2008. The low birthweight rate was unchanged, remaining at 8.2 percent of all births.
The Caesarean section delivery rate rose for the 12th straight year, to 32.3 percent of births in 2008, with increases among all groups of women.