By MARSHA MERCER
First lady Michelle Obama’s campaign encouraging kids to eat healthier foods and exercise is a modest enterprise compared with the federal government’s bold attempt in 1981 to curb teen sex.
The goal was to reduce early pregnancy, but the idea that Uncle Sam would presume to know more than parents, grandparents and churches about promoting chastity struck many, including me, as preposterous. Many thought it a mission impossible that would end when President Ronald Reagan headed back to his ranch.
Thirty years later, the government is still pushing what’s now called abstinence education. Fortunately, the government’s approach to reducing teen pregnancy has matured and broadened considerably with effective sex education and information about and access to contraception.
And here’s the good news: Fewer teens are having babies.
The birth rate for teenagers declined 8 percent between 2007 and 2009 to its lowest level since the federal government began keeping track nearly 70 years ago, the National Center for Health Statistics reported.
The 2009 teen birth rate -- 39.1 births per 1,000 teens 15 to 19 -- is nearly 60 percent lower than the historic high in 1957 of 96.3 births. The number of births to teens, about 410,000 in 2009, was the fewest since 1946 and 36 percent fewer than in 1970.
Even better, the decline is across the board. Birth rates have fallen to the lowest levels ever for younger as well as older teens and for all racial and ethnic groups, according to the analysis by the health statistics center, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control.
Virginia ranked in the Top 10 states with the most-significant decreases in the birth rate for 15- to 17-year-olds. North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama had significant decreases in the birth rate for the age group.
Just as healthy behavior is a pre-emptive strike against illness, delaying motherhood is a pre-emptive strike against poverty. A baby born to a single, teen mother who lacks a high school diploma is nine times more likely to grow up in poverty than is a baby with older, married parents who have finished high school.
Teen childbearing costs American society an estimated $9.1 billion a year. The babies of teen moms are more likely to have lower birth weight and other medical problems.
The downward trend of teen childbearing began 20 years ago. Between 1991 through 2005the teen birth rate dropped by more than one-third. Various studies have reported that teen sexual activity declined during those years, and contraceptive use rose.
Progress inexplicably stalled in 2005, and the birth rate rose 5 percent over the next two years. Analysts are hopeful that the 2008 data and preliminary data for 2009 indicate a resumption of the downward trend.
To be sure, pieces of the puzzle are missing. Information on teenage pregnancy outcomes, including abortions and miscarriages, lags birth rates and was not part of the analysis. In 2005, the most recent year for which comparable data are available, 57 percent of adolescent pregnancies ended in live births, 27 percent in abortions and 16 percent in miscarriages, according to the CDC, which also says there has been a strong downward trend in teen abortions.
“Abstinence-only” education survived the Clinton era as part of welfare reform and still exists among several teen pregnancy prevention efforts launched by President Barack Obama. The new health care law extends its life with $100 million in grants divided between a new State Personal Responsibility Education Program, known as PREP, and Abstinence Education, which by law must motivate students to abstain from sexual activity outside marriage.
Pop culture traditionally has been a counter-force to efforts discouraging early premarital sex. Today it can be an ally. Bristol Palin, the nation’s most famous single mom at 18, advocates abstinence for young unmarried people. Reality TV shows that depict how hard it is to be a young parent also help open eyes.
Three decades after the government, amid much skepticism, began urging teens to say no to sex, births to young mothers have dropped to historic lows. We can hope that it won’t take 30 years for American children to become slim and fit.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.