Baltimore's teen birth rate falls since 1991


Baltimore's teen birth rate, although still much higher than the national average, has reached its lowest level since the city started keeping records more than 100 years ago, health officials will announce today.

The percentage of teenage girls having babies has dropped more quickly in Baltimore than in the nation as a whole since 1991, when the number most recently peaked.

Seven percent of Baltimore girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth last year, down from 11.7 percent in 1991, a reduction of 40 percent.

Nationally, the figures were 4.2 percent last year and 6.2 percent in 1991, a 32 percent drop.

"That's dramatic. That's quite dramatic," Stephanie Ventura, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics, said of the trend in Baltimore. That is "definitely an accomplishment to have that kind of a decline."

Nevertheless, Baltimore -- which has something of a national reputation for its high teen pregnancy rate -- has a long way to go, local health officials concede.

The city's teen birth rate remains more than twice that of Maryland as a whole, where a little more than 3 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 became mothers last year.

"We have to not just close our eyes and say, 'We're finished,' " said Cathy Watson, acting bureau chief for adolescent and reproductive health for the city Health Department.

But local health officials take pride in the rate's steady decline over the past decade. They credit a variety of factors, including AIDS fears, the distribution of birth control at schools, abstinence programs and a relatively strong economy.

'A dramatic drop'

"We were one of the highest cities in terms of teen birth rates in the '80s and '90s, and we've had a really dramatic drop," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, who will announce the newly released birthrate figures for last year at a news conference today.

Baltimore's teen birth rate is lower than that those recorded in the 1940s and 1950s, although then the young mothers were more likely to be married 18- and 19-year-olds, Beilenson said. Nationally, the teen birth rate peaked in 1957, when 9.6 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 had babies, Ventura said.

In 1957, 14 percent of teen births were out of wedlock. Today, 80 percent of teen mothers are unmarried and therefore less likely to be able to provide for their children, Ventura said.

"It's not that a teen mom categorically cannot be a great mom and raise a kid who graduates from college," Beilenson said.

"But it's just much harder to do."

Fear of AIDS has encouraged condom use, and health centers based in most Baltimore high schools and some middle schools have made contraception more available, Beilenson said.

Support groups

He also noted that several schools have abstinence support groups and that after-school programs have been created to keep young people busy with activities other than sex.

The strong economy of the 1990s also might have played a role, offering economic opportunities that teens knew they would forfeit if they became mothers, Ventura said. Teens with no job prospects have little incentive to not have a baby, she said.

"'If I finish this degree or that program, I might get a better job. I can buy this, I can have that,'" Ventura said, describing the thought process that could have contributed to the decline. "And they can see that would be achievable and not an unreasonable goal, not something that was pie in the sky."

Nationally, the decline in the teen birth rate has been steepest among African-Americans, for whom the problem was most prevalent a decade ago. Nationally, the percentage of black teens who became mothers fell nearly by half, from nearly 12 percent in 1991 to 6.5 percent last year, Ventura said.

Reductions in teen births have been most meager among Hispanics, who have surpassed blacks and have the highest teen birth rate. About 8 percent of Hispanic teenage girls nationally had babies last year, compared with 10.5 percent in 1991, Ventura said.

Figures released yesterday did not break down teen birth rates by race in Baltimore, which has a large black population and relatively few Hispanics.

Statistical gains

The kind of statistical gains seen in Baltimore are easier to achieve in an area where teen birth rates are high, national experts said.

"As the rates come down, it becomes incrementally more difficult to make substantial decreases," said Lawrence Finer, associate director of domestic research for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York health think tank that focuses on reproductive issues.

But Finer and others called the city's trend impressive.

"It's definitely something that should be considered a big plus," Finer said.

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