In a trend that some credit to abstinence education and others to better use of contraception, teen-age birth rates nationwide declined substantially from 1991 to 1996.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the sharpest declines were among black teen-agers -- until recently the group with the highest level of births.
While black teen-agers still have babies at almost twice the rate of whites, their birth rate declined 21 percent from 1991 to 1996, and is now at the lowest level ever reported.
There were 91.7 births for every 1,000 black teen-age women ages 15 to 19 in 1996, while whites had 48.4 per 1,000, and Hispanic teen-agers had 101.6.
"What's significant is that these declines are in every state," said Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services. "I give a lot of credit to the African-American community, which has put out a clear consistent message from the churches, the schools and all sorts of civic organizations, a drumbeat to young women and young men that they should not become parents until they are truly ready to support a child, that having children too early will limit their options."
Overall, in 1996, the teen-age birth rate was 54.7 for every 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19, down 11.9 percent from the 1991 rate of 62.1. Although the 1996 numbers were previously reported as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vital statistics report last fall, the special five-year report Shalala issued yesterday placed a spotlight on the decline in teen-age births.
Isabel Sawhill, president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a private nonpartisan initiative, said: "Birth rates went up sharply from 1986 to 1991, and then they started coming down again. Nobody knows for sure why this is occurring. We're not sure why they popped in the first place, and anything that pops up can pop down again. But we do know that behind this drop in birth rates is both an increase in contraception and a reduction in sexual activity, the first reduction in decades and decades."
In Maryland, the federal study showed a 12 percent drop from 1991 through 1995.
In 1991, 5.4 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth -- compared with 4.8 percent in 1995. The rate dropped further in 1996 -- to 4.6 percent, according to a preliminary calculation by the state health department.
Meanwhile, 9.9 percent of teen-age girls in Baltimore city gave birth in 1995 -- down from 11.7 percent in 1991. The 1996 rate was unavailable.
Experts of every political stripe heralded the nationwide declines as good news, and agreed that the past few years mark the end of an era in which teen-agers started sexual intercourse at ever-earlier ages -- a trend extending from the 1950s, when 27 percent of women turning 18 had had sex, to the mid-1980s, when 56 percent had done so.
And the pregnancy and abortion rates among teen-agers are dropping, too. But there is no consensus about what is behind those declines either.
Conservative groups, such as Focus on the Family, in Colorado, say it is abstinence education that turned the tide.
"We believe abstinence has played the central role in what's happening," said Amy Stephens, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family. "Privately funded abstinence programs started in the late 1980s and went on in the 1990s, and now there is federal funding for programs that give kids a direct message about what we want them to do.
"Kids respond when they get a direct message instead of the mixed message that if you're going to have sex, you should use a condom, but oh, also, we don't think you should have sex."
But groups like the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based nonprofit research and education group emphasize the effects of better contraception.
Pub Date: 5/01/98