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Drop in Pregnancy, Birthrates May Not Add Up to Trend

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New federal figures that show a drop in pregnancy and childbirth rates among young women may represent hope but not salvation for those seeking to curb teenage pregnancy, experts said last week.

Two separate reports released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show an apparent reversal of the trend of rising teenage pregnancy and birthrates that began in the late 1980s.

And the numbers show that the birthrate among unmarried women, including unmarried teenagers, leveled off between 1991 and 1993, the most recent year for which data were available.

The reports could provide fodder for public-policy debates from condom distribution to welfare reform, but experts are urging caution in interpreting the data.

"I don't think we should be patting ourselves on the back," said Kristin Moore, a social psychologist and the executive director of Child Trends, a Washington-based research organization.

The data for a change in teenage-pregnancy rates covers one year, from 1991 to 1992, she noted, adding that "one year doesn't make a trend."

"It's good news that the increase has stopped," said Stanley Henshaw, the deputy director of research at the New York City-based Alan Guttmacher In~stitute, which tracks reproductive issues.

But he and Ms. Moore noted that the United States has the highest teenage birthrate among the world's developed countries. In 1991, the U.S. rate for girls ages 15 to 19 was nearly twice that of the closest country, Great Britain, Ms. Moore said.

Mr. Henshaw said the reason for the drop in the teenage birth~rate is difficult to pinpoint. "We don't know why it increased, so I don't think we know why it's leveling off," he said.

The optimistic view would be that sex-education programs are working or teenagers are getting the message that it's not a good idea to be having babies, he said. "On the other hand, we certainly haven't conveyed that very well" because the rates are still higher than for any preceding year in nearly two decades.

Birthrates Level Off

According to the federal figures, birthrates for teenagers have reached a kind of plateau. For all 15- to 19-year-olds, the proportion of women giving birth dropped 4 percent from 1991 to 1993. But the biggest drop was from 1992 to 1993 for the 18- and 19-year-olds; the rate for those ages 15 to 17 has stayed more stable.

Birthrates had increased sharply from 1986 to 1991--by 27 percent for teenagers 15 to 17 and by 19 percent for women 18 to 19, according to the figures in the Sept. 21 Monthly Vital Statistics Report issued by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

Black and Hispanic teenagers had the highest birthrates among teenagers. While 51.1 out of 1,000 white teenage girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth in 1993, 108.6 blacks and 106.8 Hispanics in the same age group did so.

For the first time in recent years, teenage pregnancy rates in most states declined significantly between 1991 and 1992, according to research in the Sept. 22 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Researchers collected the rates, which are based on birth and abortion rates, for 41 out of 50 states as well as for the District of Columbia.

Of the states with age-specific data, 31 states registered decreases for teenagers 15 to 19, ranging from a 2 percent drop in Florida to a nearly 15 percent decline in Maine.

"We are very encouraged," said Lisa Koonin, of the CDC's division of reproductive health.

Two states, Kansas and New York, saw a statistically significant increase in pregnancy for teenagers older than 15--8.7 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.

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