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Teen birth rates reach historic lows

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2012 - Births to teenagers in the St. Louis area are continuing to decline, reflecting a downward trend across the nation, according to new federal and state data.

The U.S. teen birth rate from 2009 to 2010 reached a historic low of 34.3 births for each 1,000 women between ages 15 to 19. From 1991 through 2010, the rate dropped 14 percent,  according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The report makes these additional points:

• Teen birth rates by age, race and ethnic origin were lower in 2010 than ever reported in the United States.

• Fewer babies were born to teenagers in 2010 than in any year since 1946. If the teen birth rates observed in 1991 had not declined through 2010 as they did, there would have been an estimated 3.4 million additional births to teens from 1992 to 2010.

• Teen birth rates fell in all but three states during the four-year period of 2007 to 2010. Teen birth rates vary significantly from state to state, reflecting in part differences in the racial and ethnic composition of each state's population.

In addition, the report said teen birth rates declined by 9 percent for non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black teenagers; by 12 percent for American Indians or Alaska Natives and Hispanic teenagers; and by 13 percent for Asian or Pacific Islander teenagers from 2009 to 2010

Area health officials didn't have data readily available for 2010, but they said the overall rate across Missouri is declining.

The number of live births for city teens between the ages of 15 and 17 in 2009 was 266, compared to 288 in 2008; the number of births for St. Louis teens in the 18-19 age group was 488 in 2009 and 532 in 2008.

"We are pleased to see this decline in teen pregnancy in the city" said Pamela Rice Walker, health director for St. Louis. "Having a child as a teenager can trap both mother and child in a cycle of poverty that is difficult to end. Statistically, most teen mothers do not attend college, and many do not even finish high school. By working to decrease the teen birth rate, we are providing our residents a chance for a better future.”

In St. Louis County, the number of births for teens between 15 and 17 was 258 in 2009 and 310 in 2008; for St. Louis County teens in the 18-19 age group, the number was 658 in 2009, compared to 669 in 2008.

St. Charles County appears to be the only area in the region where the number of teen births rose in one age category. In 2009, the number of teen births in St. Charles in the 15-17 age group was 49, compared to 75 the year before. But the number of teen births in the 18-19 age group stood at 190 in 2009, compared to 176 in 2008.

In Jefferson County, 62 children were born to teens in the 15-17 age group in 2009, and 74 in 2008. In the 18-19 age group, the number was 174 in 2009 and 181 in 2008.

Release of the latest statistics, representing the most current data available, came against a backdrop of an escalating debate over what Catholic bishops called "unjust laws." Among other issues, the bishops were referring to the Obama administration's proposal to offer contraception coverage to all insured women, including those who work for institutions connected to religious groups, such as churches and hospitals.

Both sides in the debate over contraception felt the latest data reinforced their views.

"We believe the rates are going down due to abstinence education and teens being more aware of the consequences of sexual activity," says Patty Skain, executive director of Missouri Right to Life. "The consequences can be sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies and abortions. I think teenagers also are becoming more and more aware that abortions aren't good for young people."

She says that "more than any other generation, (today's teens) realize the constitutional right to life and that abortion isn't good for a child because it kills, not good for mothers and not good for society. It's great news that teen pregnancy rates are going down but also that abortion rates are going down, too."

Allison Hile, executive director of the Teen Pregnancy and Prevention Partnership, says it's good that the numbers are dropping but "we still have the highest teen pregnancy rate of any industrial nation.  So we need to keep that in perspective because we cannot stop working on this issue. The rates have gone down, but not nearly as low as they could be. We still have way too many teenagers getting pregnant. And the numbers for (some) sexually transmitted diseases have not gone down." 

She believes the number of teen pregnancies is declining because "we are starting to have better programs. We are starting to have better access to contraceptives, but we're not there yet. We need to have comprehensive sex education in the schools. That's not happening."

Asked how the public can get beyond the controversy over contraception, Hile says, "Well, parents are beyond it. Over 80 percent of the parents in Missouri support comprehensive sex education. I think what we are living with is a fear of controversy that isn't quite the controversy that exists. It's an irrational fear."

Asked what issues she thinks sex education in schools should embrace, she said, "We need to be talking (to teens) about how to know if you are ready to have sex. We need to talk about healthy relationships. We need to talk about how bodies work, so that males and females have a sense of how their bodies work. "

She added that contraception "absolutely has to be a piece of it. We want teenagers to delay until they are in a long term committed relationship. But if they choose to ignore our advice, it is irresponsible for us not to give them accurate information about contraception and disease prevention."

St. Louis health officials credit the drop in teen births to work by the Teen Pregnancy and Prevention Partnership and a number of other community partners. In addition, city Health Department director Pamela Rice Walker said in a statement that her agency also "encourages parents and guardians to talk to their children at an early age about the risks of teenage sex and the responsibilities of parenthood. Abstinence or practicing safe sex protects teens from unwanted pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted diseases and illnesses."

The city's community partners include a teen-focused group called The Spot, where youngsters can communicate with informed teens, and adults as well, about a range of health issues. Walker said the city's work also has been aided by education and outreach efforts by the Red Cross, St. Louis Effort for Aids, Missouri Office of Minority Health, Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club, and public and private schools.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.