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TEEN pregnancy rate falls to record low

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Teen-agers appear to be getting the message that abstinence from sex or consistent use of birth control equals fewer babies.

On Tuesday, the government reported that the teen pregnancy rate continued to fall, hitting a record low in 1997, the latest year for which complete figures are available. The abortion rate fell by nearly a third since 1990, also reaching a record low.

Researchers don't know why teens decide against having sex or to use birth control.

``That is almost wholly up to speculation,'' said researcher David Landry of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which focuses on reproductive health issues.

It may be a subject worth speculating on. Those who support a greater emphasis on abstinence _ telling teens to just say no to sex _ tend to credit an increase in support for these programs, which saw a massive infusion of government money beginning in 1997.

Those who believe the availability of birth control is key point to new, more reliable methods of contraception. Those include Depo-Provera, an injectable drug that came onto the market in 1993, and Norplant, capsules that are surgically inserted under the skin and last about five years.

Other possible reasons: fear of AIDS has made teens more conscious about using condoms, and the strong economy has given them other options for their futures. Much of the decline comes from a sharp drop in second births to teen-agers.

No matter what the reason, it's clear that teen pregnancy rates are continuing to fall. The rate fell by 4.4 percent between 1996 and 1997, continuing a trend that has marched through the 1990s.

In 1997, about 9.4 percent of all girls ages 15 to 19 became pregnant _ a total of 872,000 pregnancies. Fifty-five percent gave birth, 29 percent had abortions and the rest miscarried.

Pregnancy rates are significantly higher in low-income communities, and black and Hispanic girls are more than twice as likely to get pregnant as white girls are. Still, the rates are falling among all races.

Most of the teen pregnancies are among 18- and 19-year-olds, though some 6.4 percent of girls ages 15 to 17 were pregnant in 1997. That's down 21 percent since the peak in 1990.

Overall, the teen pregnancy rate fell 19 percent in 1997 from its peak in 1991, and was the lowest since 1976, when the government began keeping records.

The teen pregnancy rate is derived by combining the number of teens who give birth with estimates for abortion and miscarriage rates. Because data on abortion are difficult to collect, the statistics are several years old by the time they are released.

More recent data on teen births show these rates continuing to fall through 1999.

Teen-agers _ particularly those who are young and unmarried _ are rarely equipped emotionally or financially for parenthood, and there's near universal agreement that reducing their pregnancy rates is among the most positive social trends of the 1990s.

``We must continue to build on this success, for there is more we can do,'' said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, promising to seek more money for abstinence education.

Federal surveys show that during the 1990s, teens were more likely to use birth control and less likely to have sex. In 1995, 51 percent of teen girls said they'd had sex, down from 55 percent in 1990; among boys, it dropped from 60 to 55 percent between 1988 and 1995.

The sharp drop in the abortion rate suggests that most of the pregnancies being avoided were unwanted.

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