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Why the US teen birthrate hit a record low in 2010

Last year, the teen birthrate dropped to the lowest level ever reported in the US. Increased use of birth control is one reason, and many say that parent-child dialogue is key.

In this Sept. 2008 file photo, enrollees at the Care Center in Holyoke, Mass., collect their children at the end of the day. The Care Center gives low-income pregnant teens and young mothers exposure to a liberal arts education while earning GEDs. With on-site daycare and other supports, about 85 percent of them make a transition to college.

John Nordell

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Increased use of birth control, and, some say, other wide-ranging variables such as abstinence-only education and a poor economy, are playing key roles in driving the US teen birthrate to a record low, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC's National Center for Health Statistics reported in November that the rate declined 9 percent from 2009 to 2010, with 34.3 births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19. That marks the largest single-year drop since 1946-47 – and the lowest level ever reported in the United States.

Teenage birthrates have tracked a relatively steady downward trend since 1991, when the rate was 61.8 births per 1,000 teens. (The rates were 52.2 in 1981, 64.5 in 1971, and 88.6 in 1961.)

In a world dominated by an increasingly image-oriented and sexualized culture, what's afoot? What accounts for this abundance of caution? The answers depend upon whom you ask.

Take Elizabeth Reis and daughter Leah Reis-Dennis. They each used the word "embarrassing" to describe their first talk about birth control, which Elizabeth initiated about a month into Leah's relationship with a high school boyfriend.

But that unease quickly gave way to relief. Ms. Reis knew that her daughter, then 16 and a high school student in Eugene, Ore., was on the pill and being careful, and Ms. Reis-Dennis benefited from her mother's knowledge and support. Perhaps most important, they learned there was clear agreement between them – a baby was not an option.

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