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The drop in birth rates was less pronounced in women in their 30s than women in their 20s, noted Carol Hogue, an Emory University professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology.

“If women feel they are up against a biological clock, that is a counterbalance to ‘I can’t afford to have a baby right now,’” she said.

CDC officials said the most striking change was the decline among teens, and some experts credited popular culture as playing a role. The issue of teen pregnancy got a lot of attention through Bristol Palin, the unmarried daughter of former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Bristol Palin had a baby boy in December 2008. Teen pregnancy is also cast in a harsh light by “16 and Pregnant,” a popular MTV reality show which first aired in 2009 and chronicles the difficulties teen moms face.

Gabriela Briela, 17, a high school senior in Chicago, believes TV shows like that one are a big factor. She also credits sex education that goes beyond abstinence and advises birth control for teens who have sex.

Briela recalled one of her eighth grade teachers telling students to write down how they would tell their parents if they became pregnant.

“It’s something that I still keep with me. It forced you to really ponder that thought” and think about the consequences, she said.

For decades, health educators have been emphasizing the hazards of teen pregnancy, including higher dropout rates and other problems for these young mothers and their kids. The cumulative effect of such campaigns may have played an important role in pushing down the teen birth rate, Ventura said.

But experts acknowledge they are speculating. Hogue noted a lack of key data for 2009 that would answer questions about whether teens are having the same amount of sex, whether their use of contraception changed, or whether they were getting pregnant just as often as in earlier years but were having more abortions.

Abortion could be a factor, said Jaqui Johnson, 17, a senior in Des Moines, Iowa.

Because teens generally don’t plan pregnancies, she doubts the recession as an explanation. When financial considerations do creep into a teen’s conversation about pregnancy, it most likely involves a bleak assessment of their ability to support a child, Johnson said.

“If girls do get pregnant, they’re probably looking more into getting abortions” than teens may have in years past, she said.

None of the experts was able to explain an uptick in the teen birth rate in 2006 and 2007.

Also, there’s reason to rein in celebration of the 2009 numbers. The U.S. teen birth rate continues to be far higher than that of 16 other developed countries, according to a 2007 United Nations comparison that Brown cited.

Still, news of the large decline was a stunning and exciting surprise for advocates, Brown noted. “This is like a Christmas present,” she said.

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