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 last week. 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."
Some experts credited popular culture as playing a role in the decline of teen births. The issue of teen pregnancy got a lot of attention through Bristol Palin, the unmarried daughter of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who had a baby in December 2008.
Teen pregnancy is also cast in a harsh light by "16 and Pregnant," a MTV reality show that 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 children.
The cumulative effect of such campaigns may have played an important role in pushing down the teen birth rate, said Stephanie Ventura, a co-author of the report issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But experts acknowledge they are speculating. Carol Hogue, an Emory University professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology, 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.
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.