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Thursday, June 13, 2002

By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

At first glance, at least, the latest news on teen pregnancy in the United States is very encouraging. The recent preliminary report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), “Births: Preliminary Data for 2001,” reveals that births to women age 15-19 have dropped for the tenth straight year, especially among younger teens, age 15-17. The birthrate among the younger group dropped a record 8 percent from 2000 to 2001. Overall the teen birthrate has dropped 26 percent since 1991. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson called the results “an important milestone in our fight against teen pregnancy, and Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP) was similarly pleased: “When it comes to teen sex, pregnancy, and births, 1991-2001 is now firmly on record as the decade of substantial progress.” A June 7 Washington Times article on the report quoted her as saying, “If these rates keep going down, I may lose my job.” Indeed, as the story in the Washington Times pointed out, the teen birthrate in 2001 has not only declined over the last decade; the current rate is at its lowest point in six decades.

Unfortunately, however, official press releases accompanying the report focus almost entirely on the issue of teen pregnancy, avoiding the real issue –unmarried teen pregnancy and unmarried births in general. This is not the first time that NCHS has issued such a press release. In fact, the subject of the October-November 2000 issue of BLI’s Data Digest was the NCHS report for 1999, in which we quoted their accompanying press release touting, “the lowest rate in the 60 years data on teen births have been recorded.” As we pointed out then, the press release gave barely a mention to the real heart of the matter, mentioning almost as an aside, “The preliminary report also found a drop in the number of births to unmarried teens .” A drop in the number of teen births is irrelevant without distinguishing between married and unmarried teens. Although it is far less common than it once was, women in their teens still do marry and have children, and it is difficult to see why reducing the number of births to married teens should be the goal of any organization –government-affiliated or otherwise.

In fact, as we said in the above-mentioned Data Digest, the overall drop in teen births from 1990 to 1999 “is entirely attributable to the fact that married-teen births declined by 70 thousand during this period.” Births to unmarried teens reached an all-time high in 1994 but began a decline in 1995 that has continued, fortunately. But the number of births to unmarried teens was higher in 1999 than it was in 1990. If the numbers continue to decline to below the 1990 rate, then we may have real cause for celebration.

The other major point that the NCHS report revealed and the press releases ignored is the increase in the proportion of out-of-wedlock births among women in their childbearing years (age 15-44), up from 33.2 percent in 2000 to 33.4 percent in 2001. In fact, among women age 20-24, unwed birthrates have gone up in recent years even as overall birthrates have declined. This means that, despite our best efforts to discourage out-of-wedlock childbearing, one third of American children are still born to unmarried mothers. That their mothers are slightly older than they were a few years ago is scarcely encouraging and certainly not good news for children. Obviously, we still have a long way to go toward reestablishing the connection between marriage and childbearing.

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