- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A recent federal report on American childbearing was literally bursting with records.

But it may be hard to tell the good news from the maybe-not-so-good news.

Media headlines captured the main finding, which was that in 2009 teen births fell to their lowest level since 1940, when the federal government started tracking teen childbearing.

The new birthrate for elder teens, aged 15 to 19, was 39.1 births per 1,000 teens. This marked an amazing 37 percent slide from 1991, the peak year when the birthrate was 61.8 per 1,000 teens.

Declines were seen in teens of all ages, but perhaps the most welcome news was that the birthrate for the youngest girls, aged 10 to 14, was the lowest ever recorded (0.5 births per 1,000).

Lowering teen births has long been a national goal, primarily because most of these births occur to unmarried teens and having a baby at such a young age virtually guarantees a more complicated life for everyone. So these new, lower teen birth numbers are likely to be heartening to most people.

But what about the other record-breaking findings in the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)’s “Births: Preliminary Data for 2009”? Are they all sanguine too? It finds that:

• America’s crude birth rate (13.5 births per year per 1,000 total population) is the lowest ever recorded.

• America’s general fertility rate (66.7 births per year per 1,000 women aged 15-44) declined 3 percent, erasing gains made from 2006 to 2008.

• The total fertility rate fell 4 percent in one year, to 2,007.5 births per 1,000 women in their lifetimes. This was the largest decline in this vital statistic since 1973. It also marked the second year in a row that America’s fertility rate was “below replacement,” i.e., below 2.1 births per woman.

Then when researchers looked at which groups of women were — and weren’t — having babies, more changes emerged:

• The birthrate for young women aged 20 to 24 fell 7 percent, the largest decline for this group since 1973.

• The number of births to women in their late 20s also fell, by 4 percent. So did births to women in their 30s, albeit modestly.

• The only age group to have a higher birthrate was women aged 40 to 44. Their rate of 10.1 births per 1,000 was the highest since 1967.

As for unmarried women and childbearing, there were mixed outcomes.

For the first time since 1997, the total number of births to unwed women fell (about 2 percent, from 1.72 million in 2008 to 1.69 million in 2009).

But “because total births declined more than unmarried births, the percentage of births to unmarried mothers rose slightly in 2009,” the NCHS said. This meant unwed childbearing marked yet another new record of 41 percent.

When it comes to the babies themselves, the number of infants born prematurely fell again, to 12.18 percent of all births, which is welcome news.

Still, if you look at a chart tracking birthrates from 1990 to the present, you can see the Great Delaying in U.S. childbearing.

The biggest portion of births in 2009 are to women in their late 20s, as always. But the maternity deck shuffled for the next four groups: Now the second highest birthrate (by a hair) belongs to women in their young 30s, displacing women in their young 20s to third place.

And instead of teen mothers having the fourth-highest birthrate, it’s women aged 35 to 39.

Teens still far, far outproduce women in their 40s (duh), but the latter are creeping up: In 2009, there were 105,813 births to women in their young 40s, and 7,934 births to women aged 45 to 54. And 2,087 of the births to those “eldest” mothers were firstborns.

A nation’s strength and prosperity is tied to robust fertility and healthy family culture. Birth trends like these cannot be watched too closely, or taken for granted as benign or progressive. A demographic maxim says fertility delayed is fertility denied.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.