By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A03
After rising to its highest point in two decades, the rate at which women in the United States gave birth declined in 2008 as the economy deteriorated, according to government statistics released Tuesday.
The nation's overall birthrate fell 2 percent from 2007 to 2008, when about 4.2 million babies were born. The dip pushed the fertility rate below 2.1 per woman, meaning Americans were no longer giving birth to enough children to keep the population from declining.
There were 41.5 births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19 in 2008, a 2 percent drop from the previous year. After a two-year increase in teen births prompted concern that one of the nation's most successful social and public health efforts was faltering, 2008 marked the return of a decline in which the rate fell 34 percent over many years.
"This is good news," said Stephanie J. Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics, which released the annual preliminary analysis of birth certificate data. "It might come as a surprise because people were concerned the teen birthrate was on a different course."
Ventura was among those who said it was too early to know whether the teen births trend would continue in 2009. But she speculated that it might because it was part of the broader drop in the birthrate for women of all ages -- except those 40 and older -- and that appears to have continued at least another year.
The reason for the drop in teen births remained unclear. Experts offered several possible explanations, including the poor economy.
The notion of a link between the drop in births and the economy was supported by an analysis of data from 25 states, including Maryland and Virginia, that was released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center to coincide with the new government report.
For example, Arizona's birthrate declined more than 4 percent in 2008 compared with the previous year, the largest drop among the 25 states. Its decline in per capita income in 2007 ranked second and its housing-price change ranked sixth.
North Dakota was one of only five states that had a gain in its fertility rate. That state's growth in per capita income was the largest, and its 2007 foreclosure rate was the second lowest.
In an October survey by the center, 14 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 and 8 percent of those ages 35 to 44 said they postponed having a child because of the recession. The youngest women were the most likely to say they had postponed having children.
That same survey found that women with low incomes were particularly likely to report postponing having a child. Nine percent of those earning less than $25,000 annually postponed having a child, while only 2 percent of those earning more than $75,000 did so.
"Certainly younger folks have the 'luxury' of delaying their childbearing in an attempt to hold out for better economic conditions, while older people may feel the press of the biological clock prevents too much of a delay," said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at Pew.
While some experts questioned whether the drop in teen pregnancies was related to the economy, the decline was hailed by advocates across the ideological spectrum.
"If there had been a third year of increase in the rate, the two-year 'uptick' in teen births would have become a troubling trend," said Sarah S. Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies.
Others cautioned that the numbers might not prove that the decline in teen births has resumed.
"I think it is hard to make any pattern out of the last three years, other than to say that we are no longer making steady progress," said John Santelli of Columbia University. "The trend from 1991 to 2005 was steadily downward. We now seem to be stuck."
The rate dropped most sharply, by 4 percent, for 18- and 19-year-olds. The rate had increased 6 percent between 2005 and 2007 for this group, halting a 26 percent decline between 1991 and 2005. The rate fell 2 percent for ages 15 to 17. The rate for this age group had increased 4 percent between 2005 and 2007, interrupting a 45 percent decrease between 1991 and 2005. The rate among girls 10 to 14 remained unchanged.
The rate fell among all races and ethnicities, but hit a historic low for Hispanics.
The report comes as President Obama is launching a $110 million teen pregnancy prevention program that is being closely watched to see whether it includes funding for programs that focus on encouraging abstinence until marriage. Such programs received $150 million a year under George W. Bush's administration.
Advocates on both sides expect the program to eliminate most of that funding.
But $25 million in Obama's initiative was set aside for experimental approaches, which could include some abstinence programs. And the new health-care legislation includes $50 million a year for five years for abstinence programs.
"The downward trend is encouraging and gives us reason to believe that the 2006-07 slight uptick in teen births may have been a hiccup, rather than the start of a troubling new trend," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association.
"It is a shame that abstinence education opponents too early use any statistics to denigrate an approach that offers teens the best skills to avoid all the consequences of sex, including teen pregnancy," Huber said.
But opponents of abstinence funding urged caution.
"We don't yet know whether the new data for 2008 showing a decline constitutes a blip or a trend," said James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based group. "What we do know is that the federal government is about to launch one of the largest teen pregnancy prevention efforts in decades, and if we are to ensure that this decline continues, it is critical that federal funds go only to the programs that work. The fact that Democrats included nearly a quarter-billion [dollars] of failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in health-care reform is alarming."