ATLANTA – The U.S. teen birth rate in 2009 fell to its lowest point in almost 70 years of record-keeping — a decline that stunned experts who believe it's partly due to the recession.
The birth rate for teenagers fell to 39 births per 1,000 girls, ages 15 through 19, according to a government report released Tuesday. It was a 6 percent decline from the previous year, and the lowest since health officials started tracking the rate in 1940.
Experts say the recent recession — from December 2007 to June 2009 — was a major factor driving down births overall, and there's good reason to think it affected would-be teen mothers.
"I'm not suggesting that teens are examining futures of 401(k)s or how the market is doing," said Sarah Brown, chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
"But I think they are living in families that experience that stress. They are living next door to families that lost their jobs. ... The recession has touched us all," Brown said.
Teenage moms, who account for about 10 percent of the nation's births, are not unique. The total number of births also has been dropping, as have birth rates among all women except those 40 and older.
For comparison look to the peak year of teen births — 1957. There were about 96 births per 1,000 teen girls that year, but it was a different era, when women married younger, said Stephanie Ventura, a co-author of the report issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC births report is based on a review of most birth certificates for 2009.
Overall, about 4.1 million babies were born in 2009, down almost 3 percent from 2008. It's the second consecutive drop in births, which had been on the rise since 2000.
The trend may continue: A preliminary count of U.S. births through the first six months of this year suggests a continuing drop, CDC officials said.
A decline in immigration to the United States, blamed on the weak job market, is another factor cited for the lower birth rate. A large proportion of immigrants are Hispanic, and Hispanics accounted for nearly 1 in 4 births in 2009. The birth rate among Hispanic teens is the highest of any ethnic group with 70 births per 1,000 girls in 2009. However, that rate, too, was down from the previous year.
Other findings in the new report include:
• The cesarean delivery rate rose yet again, to about 33 percent of births. The C-section rate has been rising every year since 1996.
• The pre-term birth rate, for infants delivered at less than 37 weeks of pregnancy, dropped for the third straight year to about 12 percent of all births. It had been generally increasing since the early 1980s.
• Birth rates were down from 2008 in almost every age group of women of childbearing. The birth rate for women in their early 20s plummeted 7 percent, the largest decline for that age group since 1973.
The one exception was women older then 40 — a group that may be more concerned with declining fertility than the economy. The birth rate for women ages 40-44 was up 3 percent from 2008, to about 10 births per 1,000 women. That's the highest rate for that group since 1967.
The drop in birth rates was less pronounced in women in their 30s than women in their 20s, noted Carol Hogue, an Emory University professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology.
"If women feel they are up against a biological clock, that is a counterbalance to 'I can't afford to have a baby right now,'" she said.
CDC officials said the most striking change was the decline among teens, and some experts credited popular culture as playing a role. The issue of teen pregnancy got a lot of attention through Bristol Palin, the unmarried daughter of former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Bristol Palin had a baby boy in December 2008. Teen pregnancy is also cast in a harsh light by "16 and Pregnant," a popular MTV reality show which first aired in 2009 and chronicles the difficulties teen moms face.
Gabriela Briela, 17, a high school senior in Chicago, believes TV shows like that one are a big factor. She also credits sex education that goes beyond abstinence and advises birth control for teens who have sex.
Briela recalled one of her eighth grade teachers telling students to write down how they would tell their parents if they became pregnant.
"It's something that I still keep with me. It forced you to really ponder that thought" and think about the consequences, she said.
For decades, health educators have been emphasizing the hazards of teen pregnancy, including higher dropout rates and other problems for these young mothers and their kids. The cumulative effect of such campaigns may have played an important role in pushing down the teen birth rate, Ventura said.
But experts acknowledge they are speculating. Hogue noted a lack of key data for 2009 that would answer questions about whether teens are having the same amount of sex, whether their use of contraception changed, or whether they were getting pregnant just as often as in earlier years but were having more abortions.
Abortion could be a factor, said Jaqui Johnson, 17, a senior in Des Moines, Iowa.
Because teens generally don't plan pregnancies, she doubts the recession as an explanation. When financial considerations do creep into a teen's conversation about pregnancy, it most likely involves a bleak assessment of their ability to support a child, Johnson said.
"If girls do get pregnant, they're probably looking more into getting abortions" than teens may have in years past, she said.
None of the experts was able to explain an uptick in the teen birth rate in 2006 and 2007.
Also, there's reason to rein in celebration of the 2009 numbers. The U.S. teen birth rate continues to be far higher than that of 16 other developed countries, according to a 2007 United Nations comparison that Brown cited.
Still, news of the large decline was a stunning and exciting surprise for advocates, Brown noted. "This is like a Christmas present," she said.
AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner in Chicago contributed to this report.