Hispanic Teenagers Top Black, White Birthrate

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A federal study showing that Hispanic teenagers for the first time are giving birth at a higher rate than either black or white girls has school health professionals questioning whether enough pregnancy-prevention services are targeting Hispanic females.

While thousands of schools run teenage-pregnancy-prevention programs, many may not be geared to addressing the needs of Hispanics, the country's fastest-growing minority group, said Carlos Vega-Matos, the director of school health programs at the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Teenage Birthrates

Hispanic females ages 15 to 19 are having babies at higher rates than non-Hispanic black and white girls in the same age group, the latest federal statistics reveal.

1989 1995
Cuban 2.5% 2.9%
Mexican 9.5% 12.5%
Puerto Rican 11.3% 8.9%
Other Hispanic 6.6% 7.8%
Total Hispanic 10.1% 10.7%
White 4.0% 3.9%
Black 11.2% 9.9%
Total 5.7% 5.7%

Hiring school staff members who can build community partnerships and work with families whose English proficiency is limited is critical to reaching students from different ethnic groups, Mr. Vega-Matos said. "When we do teenage-pregnancy prevention, we need to address the needs of everybody," he said.

In the report released this month by the National Center for Health Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, researchers found that the percentage of Hispanic teenagers who gave birth in 1995 was the highest in the nation, surpassing African-Americans, who for years have had the highest rate of teenage births.

Nearly 11 percent of Hispanic females ages 15 to 19 gave birth, compared with about 10 percent of black girls and 4 percent of white girls in the same age group in 1995, according to the study. The researchers analyzed data from birth certificates from 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1989 and 1995.

The study did not look at other ethnic or racial groups.

Though the birthrates of black and white adolescents have fallen in recent years, the rate for Hispanic teenagers has continued to climb. The increase can be traced in large part to a dramatic jump in births among Mexican-American teenagers--from 9 percent in 1989 to 12 percent in 1995, a 32 percent rise.

Cultural Traditions

While Hispanic teenagers may become pregnant for many of the same reasons as other adolescents--limited access to birth control or simply a desire for a child--other factors may explain why a greater share of Hispanic adolescents is having babies, researchers suggest.

"Having a family and children is extremely important in Latino families, and when you are having stressors in the home, it's a way out," said Barbara Kappos, the director of Bienvenidos Family Services, an adolescent-pregnancy-prevention center in Los Angeles.

Hispanic girls are twice as likely as other teenagers to say their children were planned. More than 53 percent of Hispanic females younger than 20 said they had intended to have their babies, compared with 33 percent of white girls and 24 percent of black teenagers, a separate HHS survey reported this month.

The growing Hispanic birthrate is also rooted in religious and cultural traditions, pregnancy-prevention experts say. Many Hispanics are Roman Catholic and tend to shun abortions at a higher rate than other teenagers for religious reasons. The Catholic Church also forbids the use of birth control other than the natural rhythm method. Those strictures likely influence girls even as they ignore the church's strong prohibition on premarital sex.

Another barrier to minimizing the Hispanic birthrate is the reluctance of teenagers to have an open dialogue about sex with their parents, experts say. "Latino youth have a lot of difficulty discussing sex and pregnancy with their parents. It's a cultural taboo," Ms. Kappos said.

Federal Initiative

Because early childbearing has long been associated with diminished economic and educational achievement, school health experts say that it is important for schools to take a lead in curbing it.

"Early parenting and sexual activity will interfere with children's success in school, so that makes it a school issue," said Brenda Greene, the school health director for the National School Boards Association.

And schools may soon receive help from the federal government in their pregnancy-prevention efforts.

President Clinton was expected to announce as early as this week a new effort to address health disparities among minority Americans, including an initiative dealing with preventing pregnancy among Hispanic girls, an HHS spokesman said last week.

Mr. Clinton elevated the issue of teenage pregnancy to national importance last year when he launched a national prevention strategy. That initiative seeks to bolster community and school partnerships, enhance research, and improve the dissemination of information on innovative ways to prevent adolescent pregnancy.

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The years in the data table below are incorrectly labeled. The percentages on the left are from 1995; the percentages on the right are from 1989.

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