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Teenage Birthrates Decline For the 1st Time Since '86, New Federal Study

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Birthrates for girls ages 15 to 17 have fallen for the first time in nearly a decade, "halting" an increase that began in the mid-1980's, a federal study says.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported last week that the birthrate for 15- to 17-year-old girls dipped by 2 percent in 1992, after a 27 percent increase between 1986 and 1991. The center studied birthrates for women 15 to 44.

Birthrates for 18- to 19-year-old women remained stable in 1992, and a "record number" of women in their 30's had babies in 1992, the report says. The overall number of births in the United States dipped in 1992 to slightly more than four million, it says.

"We were pleased that the rate for teenagers has reached a turning point," said Stephanie J. Ventura, a researcher who analyzed data from birth certificates.

Birthrates among 15- to 17-year-old girls declined after abortion was legalized throughout the United States in 1973, the study says. From 1970 to 1986, the rate for this age group decreased from 38.8 births per 100,000 to 31 per 100,000.

By 1991, it had climbed again, to 38.7 per 100,000, nearing the 1970 level. In 1992, it dropped to 37.8 per 100,000.

Behind the Decrease

Better use of contraceptives is the reason for the current decrease, the N.C.H.S. researchers say.

Susan Tew, a spokeswoman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group based in New York City, said: "The drop in the [teenage] birthrate points to the fact that among sexually active kids, there is better contraceptive use."

However, it is still unclear what impact sex-education courses that promote abstinence and AIDS-education campaigns may have had on the decline in teenage birthrates.

The Family Research Council, a conservative policy group in Washington, contends that the report proves abstinence-education programs work. "More and more teens are not buying what the sexual revolution is selling," said Kristi Hamrick, the spokeswoman for the group.

However, Ms. Tew of the Guttmacher Institute argues that there is no evidence that teenagers are rejecting sexual activity. "There may be a number of kids who are choosing virginity, but there's no data to support a trend," she said.

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