Teen births decline in Baltimore

November 20, 1994|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Staff Writer

The birth rate among teen-age girls in Baltimore declined in 1992 after more than a decade of remarkable increase, mirroring drop in the U.S. rate that stirred hopes the nation had finally turned the corner on teen-age parenthood.

Despite the good news locally, authorities cautioned that a one-year decline does not signal victory against a problem that for many years has seemed relentless. In the 1980s, for instance, the birth rate among girls 15 to 17 rose an alarming 60 percent in Baltimore.

In tracking teen births, authorities focus on this age group, the population in which sexual activity often begins.

"From one year, you can't draw much of anything," said Estelle Apelberg, a research statistician with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "If this continues for a few years, then you could say the rate is declining."

Nonetheless, state officials engaged in a much-touted campaign against teen pregnancy found reason to hope that their efforts had produced results.

"Generally, this means that somebody is doing something right," said Ann Mulligan, executive director of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy.

"We agree that this is a real good sign, but it doesn't mean the problem has been solved. It will take time to see if it continues to go down. It's also important for us to realize that it doesn't mean we've found a cure and can stop working at it."

In Baltimore, about one of every 10 girls between the ages of 15 and 17 gives birth. As high as the rate may seem, several cities -- including Miami, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as well as Bakersfield, Calif., -- have considerably higher rates.

The state health department recently calculated birth rates among girls in the age group for 1992, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The figures show:

* The teen birth rate dropped almost 3 percent in Baltimore -- from 94.9 live births per 1,000 girls in 1991 to 92.4 births. It was only the second decline in 12 years, but officials said the first decrease -- in 1986 -- may have been artificial, resulting from flawed statistics.

* In Maryland, teen births dropped 6 percent -- from 35 live births per 1,000 girls to 32.9 births. It was the fourth statewide drop in 12 years, a period in which the rate climbed 24 percent overall.

* The teen birth rate declined among both white and nonwhite teen-agers. But nonwhite teens were much more likely to become parents than were whites. In Baltimore, for instance, the rate for nonwhite girls was 108.7 live births per 1,000 -- more than double the rate for whites.

The rate among teens under 15 is much lower and has remained stable over the past decade.

Demographers are less concerned with birth rates among girls over 17 because, in many respects, they are considered adults.

The new figures were released a month after the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a 2 percent drop in the national rate during 1992 -- the first decline since 1986. From 1986 through 1991, the national rate climbed 27 percent.

The declines both locally and nationally have left teachers, statisticians, counselors and government officials wondering what -- if anything -- can account for the turnaround. Are more teens abstaining from sex? Are they using condoms and other means of birth control? Are they having more abortions?

Surveys have shown a trend toward fewer abortions both locally and nationally, although officials said it's possible that clinics have become reluctant to report them because of the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the issue.

"We can't really say that the numbers represent a decline in teen-agers or women having abortions," said Norma Kanarek, an official with the health department's local and family health administration. Still, few people believe that abortions have increased.

Susan Tew, a spokeswoman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, said a recent survey by the New York-based research group indicates that teen-agers are practicing birth control more effectively but are probably as sexually active as ever.

"There's nothing to substantiate that there is a national trend toward kids starting to abstain from sex," she said. "The hard data is just not there. . . . It appears that improved contraceptive use may be a major factor in the lower birth rate in 1992."

In Maryland, the governor's commission and the state health department have waged a two-part attack aimed at encouraging teens to delay sex or to practice birth control if they choose not to abstain. Television advertisements have focused exclusively on the theme of abstention. Some depict adults lecturing their teen-age boys and girls about the burdens and responsibilities they will face if they become parents too soon.

One of the best-known billboard advertisements features a chicken in basketball shoes, followed by the question: "What do you call a guy who makes a baby and flies the coop?" Another memorable ad says: "Virgin: Teach your kid it's not a dirty word."

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