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Progress Watch

Why the US teen birthrate hit a record low in 2010

Last year, the teen birthrate dropped to the lowest level ever reported in the US. Increased use of birth control is one reason, and many say that parent-child dialogue is key.

By Correspondent / December 12, 2011

In this Sept. 2008 file photo, enrollees at the Care Center in Holyoke, Mass., collect their children at the end of the day. The Care Center gives low-income pregnant teens and young mothers exposure to a liberal arts education while earning GEDs. With on-site daycare and other supports, about 85 percent of them make a transition to college.

John Nordell

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Washington

Increased use of birth control, and, some say, other wide-ranging variables such as abstinence-only education and a poor economy, are playing key roles in driving the US teen birthrate to a record low, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The CDC's National Center for Health Statistics reported in November that the rate declined 9 percent from 2009 to 2010, with 34.3 births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19. That marks the largest single-year drop since 1946-47 – and the lowest level ever reported in the United States.

Teenage birthrates have tracked a relatively steady downward trend since 1991, when the rate was 61.8 births per 1,000 teens. (The rates were 52.2 in 1981, 64.5 in 1971, and 88.6 in 1961.)

In a world dominated by an increasingly image-oriented and sexualized culture, what's afoot? What accounts for this abundance of caution? The answers depend upon whom you ask.

Take Elizabeth Reis and daughter Leah Reis-Dennis. They each used the word "embarrassing" to describe their first talk about birth control, which Elizabeth initiated about a month into Leah's relationship with a high school boyfriend.

But that unease quickly gave way to relief. Ms. Reis knew that her daughter, then 16 and a high school student in Eugene, Ore., was on the pill and being careful, and Ms. Reis-Dennis benefited from her mother's knowledge and support. Perhaps most important, they learned there was clear agreement between them – a baby was not an option.

Advocates for birth control, sex education, and reproductive health rights point to that kind of parent-child dialogue as a reason for the change in the teen birthrate. They say parents are no longer in ready denial about their teen's sexual activity. Young people, too, are educating themselves about their options.

Currently 26 states and the District of Columbia allow minors to consent to contraceptive services without a parent's approval. Another 20 states allow some minors – those who have health issues, or are married, pregnant, or deemed mature – to do the same. But it's education and communication that make the difference, advocates say. And teens are listening.

"I've always planned on living an adventurous and mobile life," says Reis-Dennis, now a junior at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Pregnancy is something that is a huge responsibility that I know I'm not ready for." She adds: "I would really encourage parents to bring up the conversation. Even if they think their teenager doesn't want to hear it."

Increasing numbers of teens are seeking out birth control, according to a Guttmacher Institute analysis of CDC data from the National Survey of Family Growth. Among sexually active teens, 37 percent used hormonal contraceptives between 2006 and 2008. Between 2008 and 2010, that number rose to 47 percent.

Advocates also note an uptick in "dual use" protection – teen boys are using condoms and their female partners are on birth control. Almost one-quarter – 23.2 percent – of 15-to-19-year-olds in the National Survey of Family Growth embraced both methods between 2008 and 2010, according to Guttmacher, which promotes sexual and reproductive health through research. That's up from 16.1 percent over the prior two-year period.

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