Birthrates: good news and bad

October 28, 1994

Maybe girls are learning to say no. Maybe they are making better use of contraceptives. Whatever the reason, the results -- are encouraging. For the first time since 1986, birthrates among teen-age girls are heading down, not up. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), birthrates among 15- to 17-year-old girls fell by 2 percent in 1992. That drop comes after a 25 percent increase from 1986 to 1991, so rates are still high despite the slight decline.

In recent years, prophets of social doom could reliably point to a steady rise in teen birthrates as one measure of the disintegration of traditional families and the values they represent. Girls this age are too young to have finished high school, and motherhood significantly dims the chances that they ever will.

Without a great deal of help, they are prime candidates for extended stays on the welfare roles. The bad news doesn't stop there, since their children face longer odds than their classmates for growing into healthy, law-abiding and self-supporting citizens. Reversing the upward trend is far from the whole battle, but it's at least a start.

It's worth noting that abortions among this age group are also declining, a factor that suggests more teens are refraining from sexual activity. The recent rise in birthrates follows a steady decline that began after abortion became legal in the early 1970s, and by 1991 the teen birthrate was only slightly less than the 1970 rate.

The good news on teen-age childbearing is more than offset by the fact that teen mothers are only a small part of the childbearing population. It's far more worrisome to consider that births to unmarried women of all ages hit a record high in 1992, accounting for 30 percent of all births.

It's true that not all these children share the burdens of youngsters born to unwed teen-aged mothers. But too many of them will grow up in households that are not equipped to support and nurture them to productive adulthood.

Statistics are merely a snapshot of real life. The NCHS snapshot for 1992 suggests that efforts to persuade teen-agers to make responsible decisions in regard to sexual activity can pay off. It also shows that traditional family structures in this country are still under siege.

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