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Teen Birth Rate Experiences Record Drop

December 22, 2010

Teen birth rates in the United States reached a record low in 2009, according to stunned experts, who say the decline is partly due to the slowed economy.

Teen birthrates fell to 39 births per 1,000 girls for ages 15 through 19, a government report said on Tuesday. It was a six percent drop from the previous year, and the lowest rate since records began being tracked in 1940.

Experts say the recent economic downturn — from December 2007 to June 2009 — was one of the top contributing factors driving birthrates down overall and there is good reason to believe it would affect would-be teen mothers.

“I’m not suggesting that teens are examining futures of 401ks or how the market is doing,” Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unexplained Pregnancy, told The Associated Press (AP).

“But I think they are living in families that experience that stress. They are living next door to families that lost their jobs… The recession has touched us all,” said Brown.

Teenage mothers, who account for nearly 10 percent of US births, are not the only ones affected by recent economy woes. The total number of births has also been dropping for all women except for those 40 and older.

The report looked to the peak year of teen births — 1957 — for comparison studies. There were about 96 births per 1,000 teen girls that year, but that was a different era, when women married younger, said Stephanie Ventura, a co-author of the report issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The report is based on a review of most birth certificates for 2009.

The total number of births in 2009 was nearly 4.1 million, down 3 percent from 2008. It is the second consecutive annual decline, after births had been on the rise since 2000.

The trend may continue CDC officials said.

A decline in immigration to the United States, blamed on the weak job market, is another factor for the lower birth rate. A large proportion of immigrants are Hispanic, and Hispanics accounted for about 1 in 4 births in 2009. Birth rates among Hispanic teens are the highest of any ethnic group with 70 births per 1,000 teens in 2009. However, that rate was also down from the previous year.

One area that did not see a decline in birth rates was for women older than 40. The birth rate for women ages 40 to 44 was up 3 percent from 2008, to about 10 births per 1,000 women. That is the highest rate for that age group since 1967.

The birth rate decline was less pronounced for 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’,” Hogue told AP.

The most striking change was the decline among teens, according to CDC officials.

Some feel popular culture has played a key role in teen pregnancy. The issue got a lot of attention through Bristol Palin, the unmarried pregnant daughter of former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Bristol gave birth to a baby boy in December 2008. Teen pregnancy is also cast in a harsh light by “Sixteen and Pregnant,” a popular MTV reality program which debuted in 2009, chronicling the difficulties teen mothers are facing.

Health officials and advocates may deserve some credit in pushing down birth rates as well. For decades, they have been emphasizing the hazards of teenage pregnancy, including higher high school dropout rates among teen mothers and higher odds for health problems for their children. The snowballing effect of public health 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 they are increasing usage of contraceptives, or whether they were getting pregnant just as often as in earlier years but were having more abortions.

Nobody was able to explain the increase in teen birth rates in 2006 and 2007. Also, there is good reason to restrain from celebrating the 2009 figures. US teen birth rates continue to be far higher than that of 16 other developed countries, according to a 2007 United Nations comparison that Brown cited.

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

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