WASHINGTON – The number of births to Maryland girls ages15-19 dropped 19.2 percent between 1991 and 1997, better than the national decline of 17.2 percent in the same period, according to new report.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in its guide to preventing teen pregnancy on Monday that Maryland’s teen birth rate dropped from 54.3 births per 1,000 women in 1991 to 43.9 in 1997. Nationally, the rate dropped from 62.1 to 52.3.
While the numbers have improved for most ethnic groups in Maryland, however, the rate has increased for Hispanic girls. The rate among black teens fell faster than the state average, but was still much higher than the overall state rate.
But advocates hailed the general improvement in the teen birth rate.
The decline in teen birth rates is the result of a strong campaign by the governor’s office to cut down on pregnancy rates, said Susan Bankowski, associate director of the Baltimore-based Campaign For Our Children. It also reflects the positive effects of a growing economy, she added.
“Teens today have more self-esteem — the strong economy reinforces their sense of the future,” she said.
Bankowski also said Maryland had been very “forward-thinking” on teen pregnancies. “The governor’s office here had a campaign to prevent teen pregnancies long before most states,” she said.
Teen birth rates in Maryland were highest among Hispanics and African- Americans: 75 of every 1,000 black teens gave birth in 1997 and the rate for Hispanics was 49.1 births per 1,000 teens.
The birth rate for African-American teens fell sharply, from 96.9 in 1991. But it rose from 44.2 among Hispanics in 1991, the only segment of the population that did not show a drop in birth rates over the past several years, Bankowski said.
The rate for white teens was 30 births per 1,000 teens in 1997, according to the report, down from 36.5 in 1991.
“There certainly is a disparity in the decline among minority populations,” said Karen Griesmyer, director of the Division of Family Planning in the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
She said the state has a program to increase Hispanics’ access to family planning services, but that there are no programs specifically directed at other minorities.
Generally, however, the state offers free access to family planning services and has at least one family planning program in every jurisdiction, she said.
The Division of Family Planning also works closely with the governor’s Campaign to Avoid Teen Pregnancies, Griesmyer said. The campaign, started in 1986, combines abstinence-based education, parent and community involvement, and family planning.
“The campaign has been promoting abstinence as a viable option, and has given parents a push to communicate with youth,” Bankowski said.
Some experts warned that news of the decline should not lead to complacency.
“Pregnancy and birth rates in the United States are still much higher than those in other developed countries, like the European nations,” said John Hutchins at the Washington-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancies.
The HHS statistics are for teens above 15. But girls younger than that get pregnant, Bankowski said.
“The average age for first intercourse is 15 — that means there are kids younger than 15 having sex,” she said.
To counter this, children should be educated well before they reached their teens, she said. Parents needed to start talking to children about issues of sexuality early on — as early as when the child was 2 or 3 years old, she said. “That’s when they are learning.”
The decline was wonderful, she said, but “we still have a lot further to go.”