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Birthrates among teens drop across nation, across races

American teenagers are having fewer babies, including a dramatic decrease among black girls to the lowest rate on record, the government said Thursday.

Teen birthrates are down in every state. The reasons: less sex and more birth control, statistics indicate.

Black teen birthrates fell by 21 percent between 1991 and 1996. In 1996, 9.2 percent of black teenagers gave birth, the lowest since the government began keeping that statistic.

"The African-American community has done a wonderful job with their own young people," said Donna Shalala, the secretary of Health and Human Services.

"Their strategy of parents, community leaders, religious leaders and schools all sending the same consistent message that young blacks are cutting off their future if they have children is working."

Hispanic teens are now most likely to give birth, though their rates also fell, from 10.7 percent in 1995, to 10.2 percent in 1996, the first significant drop since 1991.

Despite the decreases, teen birthrates among both minority groups remain more than double that of white teens, which have been steadily declining since 1991. In 1995, the latest year available for non-Hispanic whites, 3.9 percent of those teens had babies.

Shalala noted that the problems go deep into the socioeconomic landscape of minority communities, where too many teenagers feel little hope for the future.

"If you think you have a future, you put off having babies," she said in an interview.

Nearly half a million American teens give birth each year. In 1996, there was about one birth for every 20 girls ages 15 to 19, down 11.9 percent since 1991, according to the analysis released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Most teen mothers are 18 or 19, but the rates dropped most dramatically among girls 15 to 17.

Experts attribute the decline to less sexual activity among boys and girls and greater use of birth control in the age of AIDS.

In 1995, sexual activity among teens dropped for the first time since the government began tracking information in 1970. Fifty percent of girls had sex in 1995, down from 55 percent in 1990. The rate for boys dropped from 60 percent in 1988, to 55 percent in 1995.

At the same time, teens who have sex are more likely to use contraceptives, particularly condoms.

Thursday's report comes amid intense efforts to reduce teen sex and pregnancy.

States are competing to see which can most dramatically reduce out-of-wedlock births, with winners sharing $100-million each year. And the 1996 welfare reform law gives states $50-million each year for programs to promote abstinence.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is working with television networks to promote anti-pregnancy messages while it aids communities with their own programs.

On Thursday, the organization released a brochure to help parents become closer to teens, arguing that research shows teens are less likely to have sex _ and more likely to use birth control if they do _ if their parents are involved in their lives.

The group said parents can help prevent teen pregnancy by talking candidly to their children about sex from an early age and being clear about their own values, supervising adolescents' after-school activities, discouraging one-on-one dating before age 16, and stopping teens from dating anyone who is not within two or three years of their own age.

The highest teen birthrate was recorded in 1957, when nearly one in 10 girls gave birth. The rate was significantly higher throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but in those days the mothers were much more likely to be married. In 1950, just 23 percent of mothers 15 to 17 were unmarried; in 1996, it was 84 percent.

Teen pregnancy rates are more difficult to determine than teen birthrates, because data on the number of abortions and miscarriages must be added. In 1994, about half of teen pregnancies ended in birth.

Teen birthrates vary greatly from state to state, with many Northern states like Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota, Maine and Massachusetts, having fewer than 35 births per 1,000 teen females, less than half the rate of Southern states such as Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas.

The District of Columbia has the highest teen birth rate, 105.5 births for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, down from 114.4 in 1991.

_ Information from the New York Times was used in this report.