Progress on teen births

December 30, 2004

THE STATISTICS often used to describe Baltimore convey an image of a dangerous, drug-addicted city. There's the murder rate, which, for better or worse, has become a barometer of the state of the city. Then there's the number of heroin addicts in town, estimated to be about 45,000, with an additional 15,000 hooked on some other drug. Births to teenage mothers used to be another one of those headline-grabbing statistics that conveyed Baltimore's decline. In the mid-1980s, the prevalence of teenagers who became mothers was one for the record books. But the statistic to be announced today - and applauded - puts Baltimore in the category of comeback city.

The city is posting its lowest teen birth rate since the city began keeping records in 1960, and the drop in 2003 was the largest yet - down 63 percent from four decades ago. About one in 14 girls ages 15 through 19 gave birth in 2003 (the most recent data available), compared with nearly one in five in 1960.

That's a superlative worth talking about when you consider that in 1984, Baltimore led the nation in teenage births. The 2003 rate accelerates a steady decline in the number of teenagers giving birth in the past decade, which follows the national trends.

FOR THE RECORD - Due to incorrect information provided by Baltimore health officials, a Dec. 30 editorial on the city's teen birth rate misstated the number of years the statistic has been recorded. The city first recorded births to teenage mothers in 1815, but the rate has been measured since 1932. The Sun regrets the error.

City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson attributes the reduction to the availability of contraceptives in city schools, increased use of condoms because teens fear contracting the AIDS virus, peer-taught abstinence and expanded after-school programs that occupy teens who might otherwise spend those hours dallying with sex. Those four factors reinforce the necessity of adequately funding school-based health clinics, sexual-prevention materials and programs that engage youngsters in recreational activities.

The low teen birth rate coincides with what the city expects will be a reduction by half in the number of recorded cases of gonorrhea (the sexually transmitted disease most common to teens) this year.

But the steady progress marked by today's announcement hasn't yet brought Baltimore's teen birth rate below the state and national levels. To accomplish that, support of those teen-friendly initiatives must remain constant. Informing teens about the consequences of sexual activity, providing them with contraceptives and keeping them active is paying off by giving youngsters a chance to fulfill their potential without the responsibility of rearing a child.

That wasn't always the case in Baltimore. In 1987, as Baltimore faced an uphill battle to reduce teen pregnancies, a headline in this newspaper aptly described the prevailing attitude among students at one inner-city high school: "Pregnancy among students just another fact of life."

Not so today.

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