WASHINGTON – 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.
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 in 2006, reversing what had been a 14-year decline.
Although researchers will have to wait at least another year to see if 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 Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics, which issued the report Wednesday. “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 due to growing complacency about AIDS and teen pregnancy, among other factors. The increase may also reflect a broader trend that cuts across all age groups, since birthrates have also increased for women in their 20s, 30s and 40s and among 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 abstinence education funding, which is expected to begin within weeks when President Barack Obama reveals 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 the money should be shifted to programs that include educating young people about contraceptives. The programs 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, although Congress cut about $14 million from the current budget.
White House spokesman Reid Cherlin called the new numbers “highly troubling.”
“President Obama is committed to reducing the number of unintended pregnancies in this country, and we are reviewing these programs as part of the budget process. The president has supported abstinence programs if they are part of a comprehensive, age-appropriate, and evidence-based effort to reduce teenage pregnancy,” Cherlin said.
The teen birthrate rose sharply between 1986 and 1991, triggering a massive campaign that caused teen sexual activity and births to fall. But a long decline in teenage sexual activity appeared to level off in 2001, and teen births increased in 2005. Experts were uncertain, however, whether the increase represented a one-year aberration or the beginning of a new trend.
The latest data, from an annual analysis of birth certificates nationwide, found that while the birthrate among girls ages 10 to 14 remain unchanged, the overall rate for girls ages 15 to 19 rose again, from 41.9 births per 1,000 to 42.5.
While the national increase between 2005 and 2006 occurred across all ethnic groups, the trends between 2006 and 2007 were not uniform. The birthrate increased 2 percent among whites and Asians and 1 percent among blacks, but it fell 2 percent among Hispanics.
The mixed statistics and modest increase raised the odds that the two years of increases could turn out to be a statistical blip, Ventura said. But other experts said the two-year data probably represent a trend and fit with other research showing a stall in the long drop in sexual activity among teens, as well as a decrease in condom use.
Experts noted that the U.S. rate remains far higher than other industrialized nations.
“This is deeply disturbing,” said Sarah Brown, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “It should be a wake-up call.”