Two decades after it led the nation in teen births, Baltimore is leading in the other direction, city officials said yesterday as they trumpeted the latest figures on young mothers.
"Just a decade or so ago, approximately 12 percent of all [Baltimore] girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth. This past year, just over 7 percent did," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner.
The declines in Baltimore outpaced those in the nation as a whole.
The teen birthrate in the city dropped by 11 percent from 2002 to 2003 and has fallen 40 percent since 1991, when the number most recently peaked, Beilenson said. Across the country, the rate dropped 3 percent from 2002 and 2003 and 32 percent since 1991.
Baltimore's teen birthrate was the highest in the nation in the mid-1980s, but the city ranked 16th among big cities by the end of 2002. Last year's rankings have not been determined because birth data have not been released for all cities.
Baltimore's standing is sure to improve because its rate had fallen faster than the nation's, Beilenson said.
Even so, with 7 percent of Baltimore 15- to 19-year-olds giving birth last year, the city's rate remains relatively high. Slightly more than 4 percent of teens had babies nationwide last year and 3 percent in Maryland.
"It's been a real challenge through the years," said Cathy Watson, acting bureau chief for adolescent and reproductive health for the city Health Department. "It appears that whatever we're doing in the community is working."
The birth figures were announced at the Healthy Teens and Young Adults Center on West North Avenue, a location chosen because services provided there are credited with helping to curb the birthrate.
The center provides contraceptives and sex education, as do clinics in almost all city high schools and some middle schools. Those services run counter to political tides, but Beilenson said they have paid off in Baltimore, where 75 percent of high school seniors are thought to be sexually active.
"The political climate has been pushing abstinence and abstinence only, and getting away from sex ed," he said. "Clearly, we don't think that makes sense."
However, Beilenson credited abstinence support groups at the North Avenue health clinic and at several schools for contributing to the decline. He said the school-based programs are run by teens, many of whom were once sexually active but have decided to abstain.
"Teens are going to be more likely to listen to others of their own age," he said.
The fear of AIDS is thought to have helped reduce the teen birthrate because it has encouraged condom use. After-school programs also might have played a role by keeping teens busy with nonsexual activities. Teens are most likely to get pregnant between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., the often-unsupervised hours between school and the return of a parent from work, Beilenson said.
The drop in the birthrate is not the result of more abortions. The number of abortions has held steady or fallen over the past decade, Beilenson said.