By Rose Hoban
As hard economic times drag on, more women – and more younger women – are apparently delaying having children, according to new numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics.
In a study published this month, pregnancy rates for women in the U.S. continued their decline into 2009, reaching their lowest levels in more than a decade.In North Carolina, state-level statistics show a parallel decline in the 2009 numbers. That decline became even more precipitous as the Great Recession dragged into 2011.
(North Carolina statistics get reported more quickly, while it takes more time to compile data from all 50 states.)
Even though pregnancy rates are highest overall for women in their 20s, the number of North Carolina women in that age group having babies dropped sharply in recent years, said North Carolina state demographer Jennifer Song.
“In part, this declining birth rate is a trend going on for decades,” said Song, who noted that birth rates tend to be somewhat cyclical, with a nine-month lag. “Recently, most of the drop can be attributed to the recession.”
In North Carolina, 67.7 women per 1,000 got pregnant in 2009; that rate dropped to 63.5 pregnancies per 1,000 in 2011. However, Song said the decline seems to be “flattening out.”
Song said that women over 40 have had no decline in birth rates; but as they make up a small percentage of the childbearing population, their numbers have little effect on the overall rate.
“Women 30 and over started to see an increase in the number of births again,” Song said. “Really, it’s the younger women who’ve put off the decision for having a child for longer.”
“A lot of people think that teens and younger women plan their pregnancies. Most are unplanned,” said Elizabeth Finlay of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina. “But everyone, including younger folks, tend to get more cautious when the economy is rough.
“When the economy is rough, it’s, ‘How am I going to pay bills this month?’ They leave less up to chance.”
Finlay said younger women feel less stress about delaying childbirth for a few years, before the sharp declines in fertility that start to take place in the mid-30s.
“You do find a lot more intentionality in women in their 30s,” she said. “They’re thinking, ‘It’s time; let me plan it out.’ And frankly, that’s when natural fertility starts to drop.”
She said that according to national surveys, the older the woman, the more likely it is her pregnancy is planned.
Teen birth rates drop sharply
The national data also showed that teen pregnancy rates reached a historic low in 2009 – a trend, again, paralleled in North Carolina.
Nationally, teens had a pregnancy rate of 37.9 per 1,000 in 2009.
North Carolina’s rate, while at its lowest in decades, remained far above the national rates, at 56 per 1,000 in 2009.
But by 2012, the state’s teen pregnancy rate had dropped to 39.6 per 1,000, according to statistics from the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics.
“Our teen birth rates have declined faster than national trends,” Finlay said. “But a part of that was we had further to go.”
She pointed to successes at places such as the health department in Gaston County, where health officials there opened three teen clinics aimed at reducing the teen pregnancy rate and reducing the disparity in rates between blacks and whites.
“We really did see increased participation from young women of color, and it really paid off in a way that was absolutely shocking,” said Finlay, who noted that only four counties in North Carolina have lower pregnancy rates for black teens than for white teens.