The newest data from the National Center for Health Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, put the 2001 teen birthrate at 45.9 births per 1,000 women ages 15-19, down from 48.5 per 1,000 women in 2000. The latest decline continues a 10-year trend that has brought the rate down 26 percent since 1991. The 2001 rate is less than half that reported in 1957, when births to teens peaked at 96.3 per 1,000 women. Birthrates then began falling, and continued to fall throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Rates leveled out during most of the 1980s and rose sharply between 1988 and 1991.
Teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates also continue to fall. The pregnancy rate in 1997, the last year for which data are available, is 94.3 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19, compared with 116 per 1,000 in 1991. Generally, about half of all pregnant teens give birth, and four percent put their babies up for adoption. The rest end in either spontaneous or planned abortions. Not all states collect information on abortion, but according to the CDC, the teen abortion rate decreased in 32 of the 43 geographic areas in the United States for which age-specific data were available.
Kreinin says most people are shocked to learn that teen pregnancy and birth rates peaked in 1957. She says they assume that teens began getting pregnant in large numbers as a result of the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. "What it tells us is that young people have been sexually active for a long time," she says.
Forty or fifty years ago, "There was a huge stigma to getting pregnant," says Kreinin. "Girls were ostracized, and quietly sent away. Or there were shotgun weddings. Mostly, we didn't talk about it." In fact, up until passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972, pregnant teens were routinely expelled from regular high schools. (See story, next page.)
Still, William O'Hare, a demographer who coordinates the Kids Count initiative for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, points out that 80 percent of teens who got pregnant in the 1950s were able to fall back on the safety net of marriage. Although their husbands left school, they were still able to get jobs - often on factory assembly lines - and make enough money to support a wife and child. Today, he adds, "That kind of job is very, very rare, and teen fathers are not well-situated to support a family."