In a trend that some credit mostly to abstinence education and others to better use of contraception, teen birthrates nationwide declined substantially from 1991 to 1996.
The sharpest declines were among black teens, until recently the group with the highest level of births, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The rate for Hispanics, the nation's fastest growing minority group, remained the highest.
There were 91.7 births for every 1,000 black female teens aged 15 to 19 in 1996, while whites had 48.4 per 1,000, and Hispanics had 101.6.
"What's significant is that these declines are in every state," said Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human services. "I give a lot of credit to the African-American community, which has put out a clear consistent message from the churches, the schools and all sorts of civic organizations, a drumbeat to young women and young men that they should not become parents until they are truly ready to support a child, that having children too early will limit their options."
Overall, in 1996, the teen birth rate was 54.7 for every 1,000 young women aged 15 to 19, down 11.9 percent from the 1991 rate of 62.1. Although the 1996 numbers were previously reported as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vital statistics report last fall, the special five-year report Shalala issued Thursday placed a spotlight on the decline in teen births.
Isabel Sawhill, president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a private non-partisan initiative, said:
"Birth rates went up sharply from 1986 to 1991, and then they started coming down again. Nobody knows for sure why this occurs. We're not sure why they popped in the first place, and anything that pops up can pop down again. But we do know that behind this drop in birth rates is both an increase in contraception and a reduction in sexual activity, the first reduction in decades and decades."
Experts of every political stripe heralded the declines as good news, and agreed that the last few years mark the end of an era in which teens started sexual intercourse at ever-earlier ages _ a trend extending from the 1950s, when 27 percent of women turning 18 had had sex, to the mid-1980s, when 56 percent had done so.
The pregnancy and abortion rates among teens are dropping, too. But there is no consensus about what is behind those declines either.
Conservative groups, such as Focus on the Family, in Colorado, say it is abstinence education that turned the tide.
"We believe abstinence has played the central role in what's happening," said Amy Stephens, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family. "Privately funded abstinence programs started in the late 1980s and went on in the 1990s, and now there is federal funding for programs that give kids a direct message about what we want them to do. Kids respond when they get a direct message instead of the mixed message that if you're going to have sex, you should use a condom, but oh, also, we don't think you should have sex."
But groups like the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based non-profit research and education group emphasize the effects of better contraception.
"Now that the level of sexual activity is not increasing, we're seeing the result of more widespread and more effective contraceptive use," said Jacqueline Darroch, the institute's senior vice president for research. "The proportion of sexually active teen girls using contraception, even at first intercourse, is increasing.
"My sense of why the black teens' birth rate is declining the fastest is that they are the most likely to use long-lasting contraceptives like Norplant and DepoProvera, which are very reliable."
Nearly a half-million babies were born to teens aged 15 to 19 in 1996 and 11,000 more to girls 14 and under.
Teenage mothers are much less likely than older women to receive timely prenatal care or gain the recommended weight during their pregnancy, and much more likely to smoke and have a low birth-weight infant, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The level of teen births was far higher in the 1950s and 1960s: the historic high point for teen births was 1957, when there were 96 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19. But in those days, the vast majority of teenage mothers were married, while today, the vast majority are unmarried.
Teen birth rates 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.
Despite the declining rates, the United States has the highest rate of teen births of any industrialized nation.
Sawhill's group Thursday released research showing that parents have great influence on teens' sexual decision-making. Young people who are close to their parents, and closely supervised, are more likely than others to postpone intercourse, have fewer sexual partners and use contraception consistently.
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.
_ Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.