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Falling Birthrate Leaves Experts Asking Why

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The recently reported drop in births among teenage girls is welcome news for those who work with adolescents. But experts say it's difficult to determine what contributed to the decline.

According to a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the birthrate among all teenage girls, ages 15 to 19, decreased 3 percent from 1994 to 1995--from 58.9 per 1,000 to 56.9 per 1,000. Since 1991, the birthrate has fallen 8 percent.

Among unmarried women ages 15 to 44, the birthrate dropped for the first time in almost 20 years, from 46.9 births per 1,000 women in 1994 to 44.9 in 1995, according to the Atlanta-based CDC's report, which was released this month.

"It's very good news," said Donna Butts, the executive director of the National Organization for Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting, a membership organization based in Washington for people who run pregnancy-prevention programs. "There are some excellent programs that are going on in communities around the country. People are realizing it takes the total involvement of the communitynot just schools and health departments."

The findings in "Births and Deaths for 1995" seem to indicate that fewer teenagers are having unprotected sex, but without current data on sexual activity and contraceptive use it's hard to put the report in perspective, said Susan Tew, a spokeswoman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York City, which tracks reproductive-health issues.

Such information will be included in the National Center for Health Statistics' National Survey of Family Growth, due out before the end of the year.

"Even with key data, you're not going to be able to establish a causal relationship" between various preventive measures and the falling teenage birthrate, Ms. Tew said. "There are a lot of factors that go into teens' making a decision about whether to be sexually active."

Teenage birthrates have declined across all ethnic and racial groups, but the rate for African-Americans dropped the most--8 percent from 1994 to 1995 and 17 percent over a four-year period since 1991.

While it appears that pregnancy-prevention strategies targeting older adolescents are having an impact, Ms. Butts said program providers still need to focus some of their efforts on the upper-elementary and middle grades.

Prevention programs should advise young people to delay sexual activity but should also provide contraceptive information for those who will decide not to wait, said Margaret Pruitt Clark, the president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based information and advocacy organization focusing on youth health and sexuality.

But Robert Rector, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, said the abstinence message hasn't been spoken loud enough.

"For decades, no one has told these young women that anything is wrong with this behavior," he said.

'Core Social Problem'

Mr. Rector said he found the most striking piece of information in the report to be the decline in the proportion of births to unmarried mothers, which declined from 32.6 percent of all U.S. births in 1994 to 32 percent in 1995.

The rate had been increasing by about 1 percentage point each year since the early 1970s, Mr. Rector said.

"If it is beginning to turn around, that is the best possible news," he said, calling illegitimacy the "core social problem."

"Most of the kids born out of wedlock are a drain on society," he said.

The report also contains good news about very young children and unborn babies: More women are receiving prenatal care in the first trimester of pregnancy, continuing a six-year increase, and the infant-mortality rate declined 6 percent from 1994 to 1995, to 7.5 deaths out of every 1,000 live births.

Infant mortality has been declining steadily, but there is still a large gap between the number of white and black infant deaths.

While the rates declined for both, the rate for white infants in 1995 was 6.3 per 1,000 live births, compared with 14.9 for black infants.

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