WASHINGTON (BP) -- The teenage birth rate in the United States has fallen to the lowest level since 1946, according to the latest data from National Center for Health Statistics.
In 2010, babies born to women between ages 15 and 19 numbered 367,752. The previous year, there were 409,802 such births.
An overall rate drop of 9 percent from 2009 to 2010 was accompanied by decreases in the rates of all racial and ethnic groups and virtually every state, according to the data released April 10. The rate reflects a variety of factors, said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, "including family structure, parental expectations, socio-economics and type of sex education."
While the decrease constitutes positive news, Huber and Richard Ross, cofounder of the True Love Waits abstinence movement, both caution that the numbers hide other problems.
"While teen birth rates have reached historic lows," Huber said, "[sexually transmitted disease] rates among teens are at historic highs."
Ross called the death of unborn babies and those that arrive without married parents an "incalculable tragedy" and said "those pregnancies are not the core issue. Sexual behavior itself is the issue."
Teenage births had a recent peak in 1991 of 61.8 live births for each 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. The most recent historic drop to 34.3 births per 1,000 continues a steady downward trend.
Those previous high rates in the early 1990s were accompanied by a dangerous attitude toward teenage sex, said Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Ross recalls adults wanting to protect teenagers from AIDS and other diseases but assuming that nothing could be done to stop teenagers from having sex.
"I remember the surgeon general of the U.S. saying on television, 'The American teenager is incapable of controlling his or her sexual behavior,'" Ross said.
This led many to an increased emphasis on the use of contraceptives by teenagers, Ross said. He and others, however, saw this as the right moment -- in 1993 -- to begin True Love Waits, a message of sexual purity and abstinence until marriage.
The teen pregnancy numbers began to drop and abstinence education became a national movement influencing teenagers and governmental leaders.
"A congressman once told me, 'Richard, a number of us stood outside and looked at those TLW cards covering the National Mall. It made an impact on us and our policies. It was a wakeup call that there are millions of teenagers who would respond to a positive call to abstinence,'" Ross recounted.
Millions continue to heed that call today. The National Center for Health Statistics released another report last year that showed an overall decline in teenage sex for the last 20 years.
"We know that abstinence is a message that resonates with teens," Huber said. "The targeted age group for sex education are 15- to 17-year- olds. About 75 percent of these teens have never had sex, despite the increasingly sexualized culture."
Even though the STD rate among teenagers is at an all-time high, the NAEA found a 1:24 disparity in federal funding of abstinence education compared to contraceptive-centered programs. From 2007 to 2012, the funding gap between the two is more than $4.2 billion -- $675.9 million to $4.9 billion. The most recent budget proposal by President Obama recommends only 4 percent of sex education dollars be spent on abstinence-based programs.
Half of unintended pregnancies were conceived when partners said they used contraception, Huber noted, and two of the four most common STDs are easily transmittable with a condom.
In February, the NAEA reported on an analysis sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that comprehensive sex education programs in school did not significantly increase teen condom use or reduce teen pregnancy or STDs.
"It is disappointing that an administration that prides itself in supporting evidence-informed programs would ignore the evidence in this arena," Huber said.
Despite the federal funding, Ross said devoted Christian parents can make a difference regarding their teenagers' choices. In a study released last year, the National Center for Health Statistics found that teenagers who have been raised by both parents are less likely to have sex. The study also indicated that the most common motivation for teens to embrace abstinence is religious reasons.
"Parents who are just nominally religious have little influence," Ross said. "But here is the good news: The most powerful predictors of a teenager living in moral purity are a mom and dad who deeply love Jesus and have embraced His lordship and supremacy. The second most important factor is the willingness of those parents to communicate often how their supreme love for Christ is impacting their own choices about purity."
Aaron Earls is a freelance writer and master of divinity student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).