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PREGNANCY & CHILDBIRTH | Teen Births Rose for Second Year in 2007; Overall Number of Births at Highest Level in U.S. History

PREGNANCY & CHILDBIRTH | Teen Births Rose for Second Year in 2007; Overall Number of Births at Highest Level in U.S. History
[March 19, 2009]

The birth rate among U.S. teens increased for the second year in a row in 2007, according to a National Center for Health Statistics report issued Wednesday, the Washington Post reports. The national birth rate among women ages 15 to 19 rose 1.4% from 2006 to 2007, continuing an increase that began in 2006 when the rate went up 3.4% after 14 years of decline. The new report found that the overall birth rate among teens ages 15 to 19 rose from 41.9 births per 1,000 teens to 42.5 births per 1,000. However, the rate among girls ages 10 to 14 remained the same as in 2006. According to the Post, although researchers will have to wait to determine whether the two-year increase in the teen birth rate represents a clear trend, "two consecutive increases signal that the long national campaign to reduce teen pregnancies may have stalled or even reversed." Stephanie Ventura, chief of reproductive statistics at the NCHS and an author of the report, said that the figures "may have reached a tipping point" but that "[i]t's hard to know where it's going to go from here" (Stein/George, Washington Post, 3/19).

The rise in the teen birth rate coincided with increases in births among U.S. women of other age groups, including women in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, the report found. Ventura said that most of the age-related increases were of 1% or less and that the largest rise was 2.3% for women ages 30 to 34 (Jayson, USA Today [1], 3/19). In total, there were a record 4,317,000 births in 2007, a number higher than any other year in American history and which "just edged out the figure for 1957, at the height of the baby boom," the New York Times reports. In addition, a record number of births occurred among unmarried women, who accounted for 40% of births, continuing an upward trend since 2002. The report found that on average women now have 2.1 children. Ventura said the recent increase in births reflects a larger population of women of childbearing age, whereas the postwar baby boom of the 1950s reflected a smaller number of women having an average of three or four children (Eckholm, New York Times, 3/19).

Although the reason for the higher teen birth rate is unclear, some experts speculated that it could reflect growing complacency about HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy or be part of an emerging trend across all age groups, the Post reports. In addition, while the increase in teen births from 2005 to 2006 occurred across all ethnic groups, the increase from 2006 to 2007 varied among whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics. Ventura said that the facts that the increase in teen births was uneven across ethnic groups and modest overall makes it more likely that the two years of upticks could be a statistical glitch. However, other experts said the two-year rise probably does represent a trend, which coincides with other data showing a stall in the long decline in teen pregnancies, along with a decrease in condom use. Experts also noted that the U.S. teen birth rate is higher than in any other industrialized nation. John Santelli of Columbia University, who studies teen pregnancy, said, "I think it's a real trend," adding that the increase is "a huge disappointment and a huge failure in public policy to see this reverse itself." Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy called the findings "deeply disturbing" and said that they "should be a wake-up call." Margaret Rodan, who directs the research project GirlTalk -- which pairs first-time pregnant teens with counselors at Georgetown University -- said that repeat pregnancies could be a contributing factor to the rise in teen pregnancies.

According to the Post, the most recent findings on teen birth rates "raised concerns across the ideological spectrum and fueled an intense debate" over the use of federal dollars to fund abstinence-only sex education programs for teens. The Post reports that supporters and opponents of abstinence-only "are girding for a new round in the battle" as they await President Obama's decision on whether he will continue funding for the programs, which received a $14 million cut in the current budget. Opponents of abstinence-only education say the report is further evidence that the approach is failing and that funding should be shifted to comprehensive sex education that includes information about contraception. James Wagoner of the group Advocates for Youth said, "The United States can no longer afford to fund failed abstinence-only programs." However, abstinence-only supporter Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association, said, "This is certainly not the time to remove any strategy that is going to provide skills for teens to avoid sex."

White House spokesperson Reid Cherlin said the recent findings were "highly troubling," adding that Obama plans to review current sex education programs as part of the budget process. He said that the president has "supported abstinence programs if they are part of a comprehensive, age-appropriate and evidence-based effort to reduce teenage pregnancy" (Washington Post, 3/19). The Times reports that some state health agencies, schools and private organizations have launched their own educational campaigns to curb teenage pregnancy, which increases the risk of medical problems and poverty for women and children (New York Times, 3/19).

Experts differed in their opinions on reasons behind the overall increase in the birth rate and births to unmarried women. According to Kelly Musick, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies cohabitation and childbearing among non-marital families, "There is a lot of childbearing outside of marriage, and a good portion nowadays is in cohabitating relationships." Gary Hoppenstand, a professor at Michigan State University and editor of the Journal of Popular Culture, said births to unmarried celebrities influenced women to have children outside of marriage (Jayson, USA Today [1], 3/19). Meanwhile, the current economic crisis has some experts predicting that the birth rate already is beginning a decline. Carol Hogue, an Emory University professor of maternal and child health, said she expects the rate to go down, noting that "[t]he lowest birth rates recorded in the United States occurred during the Great Depression, and that was before modern contraception"  (AP/, 3/19). Demographers say the current economic crisis' effect on the birth rate will remain to be seen until they have 2009 data. Gary Becker, a University of Chicago economist, said that trends from the Great Depression might not hold true today and that births might increase during a recession if unemployed women use the time out of work to have a child (Jayson, USA Today [2], 3/19).