Educators Call Birthrate Drop Payoff for Sex Ed. Programs
Abstinence and better contraceptive use both have played a part in reducing the teenage birthrate, the authors of a report announcing the five-year trend said last week.
And school officials were quick to say they were pleased with the federal report's findings.
"We are delighted," said Brenda Greene, the school health director for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "Obviously, school programs play some part in getting kids to abstain from sexual activity and increase their use of contraceptives if they are sexually active," she said.
Birthrates among 15- to 19-year-old women fell 12 percent between 1991 and 1996, from 62 births per 1,000 to 54 per 1,000, according to a report released April 30 by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Black teenagers, who until recently have had the highest birthrate of any group in that age range, had the sharpest drop in childbearing, from 115 births per 1,000 in 1991 to 92 births per 1,000 in 1996, the report shows.
Hispanic teenagers, who showed more modest declines during the same period, now have the highest birthrate--102 per 1,000, down from 107 per 1,000 in 1991. The rate for white teenagers, still nearly half that of black and Hispanic teenagers, fell 9 percent, from 53 births per 1,000 in 1991 to 48 per 1,000 in 1996.
While the NCHS report includes some yearly statistics, it highlights a five-year sustained downward trend in adolescent childbearing that spans every state.
The report shows that teenage birthrates, while generally higher in the South and lower in the North, dropped in all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1991 and 1996.
In addition, pregnancy and abortion rates among adolescents have dropped during the same period, other research has shown.
"This report shows that our concerted effort to reduce teen pregnancy is succeeding," Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in releasing the study. "The federal government, the private sector, and parents are all helping to send a message: Don't become a parent until you are truly ready to support a child," she said.
The decline in adolescent childbearing is due partly to better use of contraceptives and partly to a leveling-off of sexual activity among young people, the report's authors say. Earlier studies have shown that the proportion of 15- to 19-year-old women who were sexually active decreased from 55 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 1995.
Kristin Hansen, the spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative group based in Washington, said the statistics show that courses that teach young people to abstain from sexual intercourse are having a positive effect.
"The numbers may be getting better because maybe Generation X-ers want to do things differently than their parents and are holding out [from having sex] until marriage," Ms. Hansen said.
Other, more liberal groups also hailed the study as evidence of the increasingly widespread use of contraceptives among sexually active teenagers.
"The concern over sexually transmitted diseases and HIV is driving a lot of the awareness and contributing to an increase in condom use among teens," said Susan Tew, a spokeswoman for the Allan Guttmacher Institute, a New York City-based research group.
The decline in teenage birthrates in recent years may also be due to the increased popularity of reliable long-term contraceptives such as Norplant or Depo Provera, which were not widely available 10 years ago, the federal report says.
"We want to help them make better life decisions so they can maximize their choices, and this [study] shows that that message is getting out there," said Rosetta Stith, the director of the Paquin School, a 600-student public high school for pregnant teenagers in Baltimore. But Ms. Stith added that this study underscores the need for educators to continue to make the risks of pregnancy, AIDS, and childrearing real for students in the classroom.
"Many educators seem to be concerned with all the information that goes into one's head, from the neck up, but when it comes to discussing what goes on below the belt, everybody wants to be hush-hush about it," Ms. Stith said.
Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 6