- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

The overall teen birthrate including all age levels and ethnic groups fell to its lowest level in six decades last year, marking the 10th straight year of declines, the federal government said yesterday.

Black teen-agers and high school girls between the ages of 15 and 17 saw a significant 8 percent drop in their birthrates, slightly more than the overall 5 percent decline.

Teen-pregnancy researchers say there are no clear reasons for the continuous decline, but have higher levels of sexual abstinence among teens and better use of contraceptives pegged to it.

Abortion, which has not been cited as a contributing factor, also experienced another 2 percent drop in the number performed between 1997 and 1998, the federal government said in a separate report issued yesterday.

This is "remarkable progress," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said of preliminary birth data released yesterday by National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

The report shows that the birthrate for teens age 15-19 fell 5 percent, from 48.5 births per 1,000 in 2000 to 45.9 births per 1,000 teens in 2001.

The continuing slide represents a 26 percent decline from overall teen birthrates in 1991, when there were 62.1 births per 1,000 teens, said the NCHS report.

"The research shows us that when teens postpone parenthood, they improve their lives and the lives of their children," said Mr. Thompson.

Still, despite this downward trend, he said, "we must continue our efforts in local communities to reach teens with the message that everyone benefits when they wait until they are truly ready to start a family."

The NCHS 2001 data also show that, while teen birthrates have fallen, the portion of all births to unmarried mothers edged higher 33.4 percent, compared with 33.2 percent in 2000.

The percent of births to single white women rose slightly, from 22.1 percent in 2000 to 22.5 percent in 2001.

The percent of births to the unwed fell slightly among black women (68.5 percent to 68.3 percent) and Hispanic women (42.7 percent to 42.4 percent).

The 33.4 percent birthrate for unwed mothers troubles many social observers, who note that 20 years ago, barely 20 percent of births were out of wedlock.

"Children will benefit very little if all we're doing is delaying the out-of-wedlock birth by a few years," said Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector yesterday.

What matters to children, in terms of poverty reduction, is not the age of the mother, but "her long-term marital status," said Mr. Rector. "Clearly, we have to have a policy to try to restore healthy marriages in those communities where marriage is disappearing."

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the number of legal induced abortions fell from 900,171 in 1997 to 884,273 in 1998.

The abortion ratio, defined as the number of abortions per 1,000 live births, was 264, compared with 274 in 1997, the CDC said.

The abortion rate was unchanged, at 17 per 1,000 women aged 15-44 years.

The abortion data came from 46 states, New York City and Washington, D.C.

It did not include Alaska, California, New Hampshire and Oklahoma because of problems compiling reliable data in those states.

Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, was exuberant about the new teen birthrates, chuckling, "If these rates keep going down, I may lose my job."

"I think we're observing a very, very significant change in teen-age behavior. This is very deep and very real and obviously very long-standing we're at a decade [of declines] now," she said.

"Congratulations to the teens of America," she added. "Don't stop we still have the highest [teen] birthrate in the industrialized world but you're making better choices. Keep it up."

Highlights of the NCHS report:

•There were 4.04 million births in 2001, slightly fewer than in 2000, when there were 4.05 million births. Some 1.35 million of the births in 2001 were to unmarried mothers, slightly more than the 1.34 million unwed births in 2000.

•The birthrate for teens aged 15-17 dropped 8 percent, from 27.4 births per 1,000 teens in 2000 to 25.3 births per 1,000 teens, a new record low. Previous year-to-year declines for this age group had been around 5 percent.

•The birthrate for teens aged 18-19 fell 4 percent, from 79.2 births per 1,000 teens in 2000 to 75.8 births in 2001, also a record low.

•All teen ethnic groups saw declines, with the largest among black teens: Their rate fell from 79.4 births per 1,000 teens age 15-19 in 2000 to 73.1 births per 1,000 teens in 2001.

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