Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The U.S. birthrate is at its lowest level since data collection started in 1909, primarily because fewer young women are having children, the federal government said yesterday.

The teen birthrate also fell to a record low, with the steepest decline among girls of high school age, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) said in its preliminary report on U.S. births in 2002.

However, the portion of births to unwed mothers crept to a high point of 33.8 percent.

Some of these changes in fertility reflect the aging of the baby boom population and a national propensity for Americans to live longer, said the NCHS, an agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

NCHS researcher Brady Hamilton also said women of prime childbearing age are having fewer babies.

A nation needs 2.1 children per woman to maintain its population, Mr. Hamilton said. The United States is below replacement level, with 2.0 children per woman.

The overall birthrate in the United States for 2002 was 13.9 births per 1,000 people. That was a 1 percent decline from 2001, when the birthrate was 14.1 births per 1,000. It was a 17 percent decline from 1990, when the birthrate reached 16.7 births per 1,000 people, the NCHS said.

There were 4,019,280 births in 2002, down slightly from 4,025,933 in 2001.

The birthrate for women in their young 20s fell 3 percent to 103.5 births per 1,000 women in that age group, and remained stable at 113.6 births per 1,000 for women ages 25 to 29, he said. The biggest birthrate increases were among women 35 and older.

Among teens, the 2002 birthrate fell 5 percent from the previous year and was 28 percent lower than in 1990. It fell to 42.9 births per 1,000 girls and women ages 15 to 19.

The birthrate for girls ages 15 to 17 was 23.2 births per 1,000, a 6 percent drop from 2001 and a 38 percent decline from 1990.

Birthrates also fell modestly for older teens.

“The reduction in teen pregnancy has clearly been one of the most important public health success stories of the past decade,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday.

Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said, “Credit for this good news goes to teens themselves, who increasingly recognize the importance of waiting to have sex and waiting to get pregnant and have children.”

Teen birthrates, which have been on the records since 1940, have hit new lows every year since 1999. Before then, the low point was 50.2 births per 1,000 girls in 1986.

The 2002 report had mixed news about unmarried births.

The birthrate for unmarried women fell slightly, to 43.6 births per 1,000 women in 2002. Unwed births to black women also fell slightly.

However, the proportion of births to unmarried women crept up to 33.8 percent from 33.5 percent in 2001. White women and Hispanic women had increases in unwed births.

“This is a serious public policy issue … because we know births to unmarried mothers of any age are related to poverty,” said Heritage Foundation researcher Kirk A. Johnson, co-author of a report on the harmful effects of early sexual activity and multiple sexual partners to women.

The Heritage report, which is being released today at the Abstinence Clearinghouse’s conference in Las Vegas, says 40 percent of girls who start having sex by age 14 have unwed births. Among women who wait until age 21 or 22 to start sexual activity, 9 percent have unwed births.

Support for abstinence education has grown in recent years, but advocates are divided sharply about whether teens should be taught only about sexual abstinence or whether their education also should include information about birth control, a model called “abstinence plus.”

Advocates for Youth, a group that supports comprehensive sex education, has released a report on 19 programs that reduce the risks for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. These programs cannot receive federal abstinence-education funds because they contain information about condoms and contraception, said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth.

A survey of teens has found substantial disbelief in abstinence messages. Sixty-three percent of 483 respondents ages 15 to 17 agree with the statement: “Waiting to have sex is a nice idea but nobody really does [wait],” the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reports.

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