Teen birth rate drops; Maryland numbers on the decline for sixth straight year; Down 20 percent since '91; Education campaign, booming economy seen as factors


Maryland's teen birth rate has dropped for the sixth straight year and is nearly 20 percent lower than in 1991, according to figures to be released today by the governor's office.

The statistics will show that 4.39 percent of Maryland girls between ages 15 and 19 gave birth in 1997, the last year for which figures were available. The figure was 5.41 percent in 1991.

Maryland's rate continues to be less than the national average of 5.23 percent.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend praised the state's efforts to fight teen pregnancy, saying the decline "clearly shows our message is getting through."

Independent experts question how much influence state programs have on teen birth rates, but a leading expert on teen-age pregnancy said he could not rule out the possibility that Maryland's efforts are having a positive effect.

"It's clearly a national trend. It looks like Maryland may be doing marginally better in reducing teen birth rates than the average state," said Stanley Henshaw, deputy director of research at the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York. The nonprofit institute has studied trends in teen pregnancies.

Henshaw pointed to a number of factors that could be influencing the national trend toward fewer teen births, including family planning programs, sex education and a robust economy.

"Teen-agers are perceiving more economic opportunities and seeing more benefits in not getting pregnant," he said.

From 1996 to 1997, the decline in Maryland's teen births was a steady but unspectacular 4.5 percent -- about identical to the national average.

Townsend, who oversees the Glendening administration's efforts to reduce teen pregnancy, called the results encouraging. She said the state has tried to put out a "vigorous message" using billboards, public service announcements and education programs.

"The odds for a child born to a teen-age mom to be healthy and successful are much less than if she were born to an intact two-parent family, both of whom have graduated from high school," Townsend said.

Henshaw said it's difficult to assess how that message is getting through, though a recent study suggested that peer pressure is greater to avoid pregnancy.

"It ultimately has to be the teens," he said. "They are doing something right and being more careful and having sense of what their long-term interests are."

A recent Guttmacher study estimated that 20 percent of the decrease since the late 1980s is because of decreased sexual activity, and 80 percent is because of more effective use of contraceptives.

The 1997 figures to be released today show births and not pregnancies that were terminated by abortion. Guttmacher said Maryland had the fourth-highest abortion rate in 1996, perhaps explaining why it ranked 13th in pregnancies and 30th in birth rate.

Henshaw said that on the national level, the drop in teen births has been largely driven by a strong decline in pregnancies among African-American adolescents. But he noted that in Maryland the decreases last year were roughly equivalent among white and black teen-agers.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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