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Teen Birthrate Drops

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Two separate reports released in September by the federal 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.

While the reports will probably provide fodder for public-policy debates on topics ranging from condom distribution in schools to welfare reform, experts are urging caution in interpreting the data. "I don't think we should be patting ourselves on the back,'' says Kristin Moore, a social psychologist and executive director of Child Trends, a Washington-based research organization. The data documenting the shift cover one year, she explains. "One year doesn't make a trend.''

The United States has the highest teenage birthrate among the world's developed countries. In 1991, the rate for girls ages 15 to 19 was nearly twice that of Great Britain, the next closest country.

"It's good news that the increase has stopped,'' says Stanley Henshaw, deputy director of research at the New York City-based Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive issues. Henshaw concedes, however, that the reason for the drop is difficult to pinpoint. "We don't know why it increased,'' he says, "so I don't think we know why it's leveling off.''

The optimistic view, he and others say, would be that sex education programs are beginning to work and teenagers are getting the message that it's not a good idea to be having babies.

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 18- and 19-year-olds; the rate for 15- to 17-year-olds 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 and 19, according to figures in the Sept. 21 issue of the CDC's Monthly Vital Statistics Report. Black and Hispanic teenagers had the highest birthrates, more than twice that of whites. While 51 out of 1,000 white teenage girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth in 1993, 109 blacks and 107 Hispanics in the same age group did.

In addition to birthrates, teenage pregnancy rates in most states declined significantly between 1991 and 1992, according to the Sept. 22 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,

another CDC publication. Researchers collected the pregnancy data, which are based on birth and abortion rates, for 41 out of 50 states as well as the District of Columbia. Of the states with age-specific data,

31 registered decreases for teenagers ages 15 to 19, ranging from a 2 percent drop in Florida to nearly a 15 percent decline in Maine.

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

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