Teenage Birthrate Increases For Second Consecutive Year

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By Rob Stein and Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 19, 2009

The rate at which teenage girls in the United States are having babies has risen for a second year in a row, government statistics show, putting one of the nation's most successful social and public health campaigns in jeopardy.

Teen births in the District, Maryland and Virginia mirror the national trend, the numbers show, and local health experts say they are alarmed by the shift.

Nationally, the birthrate among 15-to-19-year-olds rose 1.4 percent from 2006 to 2007, continuing a climb that began a year earlier. The rate jumped 3.4 percent from 2005 to 2006, reversing what had been a 14-year decline.

Although researchers will have to wait at least another year to see whether a clear trend emerges, the two consecutive increases signal that the long national campaign to reduce teen pregnancies may have stalled or even reversed.

"We've now had two years of increases," said Stephanie J. Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics, which issued the report yesterday. "We may have reached a tipping point. It's hard to know where it's going to go from here."

The reasons for the increase remain unclear, although experts speculated that it could be a result of growing complacency about AIDS and teen pregnancy, among other factors. The rise may also reflect a broader trend that affects all age groups, because birthrates have also increased among women in their 20s, 30s and 40s and older unmarried women.

The increase raised concerns across the ideological spectrum and fueled an intense debate over federal funding for sex-education programs that focus on encouraging abstinence until marriage. Opponents and proponents are girding for a new round in the battle over funding of abstinence education when President Obama reveals within weeks whether he will seek to continue or cut that funding.

"This is certainly not the time to remove any strategy that is going to provide skills for teens to avoid sex," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association.

But opponents said the findings provide new evidence that the approach is ineffective and that the money should be shifted to programs that include educating young people about contraceptives -- efforts that have been shown to be highly effective.

"The United States can no longer afford to fund failed abstinence-only programs," said James Wagoner of the group Advocates for Youth.

Abstinence programs had been receiving about $176 million in federal funding each year, but Congress cut about $14 million from the current budget.

White House spokesman Reid H. Cherlin called the new numbers "highly troubling."


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