The news was pulled into the presidential campaign crossfire. President Clinton, who helped launch a national effort to reduce teen pregnancy, quickly claimed some of the credit.
``For far too long, many Americans believed there was nothing we could do about our most vexing social problems . . . but now it's different,'' Clinton said in a draft of today's radio address released by the White House. ``Americans are standing up for our values. The American family is getting stronger, and we are making responsibility a way of life.''
GOP candidate Bob Dole's campaign went on the offensive.
``If Clinton is taking credit for reducing teen pregnancy, then he must also accept blame for the massive increase in teen drug use under his watch,'' Dole press secretary Christina Martin said. ``It's time to elect a president who will show moral leadership in every area, not just the ones that make his poll numbers go up.''
The report, citing preliminary birth and death statistics for 1995, showed that the birthrate for unmarried women dropped 4 percent, to 44.9 births per 1,000 women, for the first decline since 1976. In all, about 1.2 million babies were born last year to unmarried women.
About half the change was due to better record-keeping on births in California. Nonetheless, demographers said the drop was real. Two other indicators on births to unmarried women also fell, marking the first time all three measures had dropped since 1940. The birthrates among unmarried white, black and Hispanic women all declined. ``We're very confident of this,'' demographer Stephanie Ventura said.
The birthrate for women aged 15 to 19 fell 3 percent, to 56.9 live births per 1,000 women, for the fourth consecutive decline in the teen birthrate. Black teens experienced the biggest decline, a drop of nearly 9 percent, to 95.5 births per 1,000. A total of 500,744 infants were born last year to mothers 15 to 19.
``People all around the country who are engaged in the effort to reduce teen pregnancy have been working very hard; it is paying some dividends,'' said Isabel Saw-hill, president of the nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
The report also found that:
* For the first time since the AIDS epidemic broke out, the death rate from the disease held steady. Even so, a record 42,506 Americans died of AIDS in 1995.
* Homicide rates dropped 15 percent, a preliminary figure that may be revised to show a less dramatic improvement. A researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics said the homicide rate dropped for white and black men and for black women, but was unchanged for white women, who have the lowest rate to begin with.
* Infant mortality reached a record low of 7.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births as more mothers-to-be received medical care in the first three months of pregnancy.
Florida Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a leading Republican author of the recently passed welfare overhaul, said he expected teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births to continue declining as the legislation takes hold in the states. The new law requires welfare recipients to find jobs and sets a time limit on benefits.
``This drop in out-of-wedlock births is small and helpful, but our nation hasn't seen anything yet,'' Shaw said. ``I am heartened by today's news because poverty too often finds its roots in out-of-wedlock births.''
But Sawhill said the availability of government benefits was not the only reason young women have babies. She pointed out that many European countries have much more generous welfare systems, and far lower teen pregnancy rates. ``We still have by far the highest rate in the industrial world,'' she said.
A small county in Oregon may provide a guide for other communities trying to reduce teen pregnancy. Tillamook County had the second-highest rate in the state a few years ago, but the numbers have since come down dramatically.
The key: A range of local institutions got involved. The health department gave out condoms, the churches taught abstinence, the YMCA put on more programs for girls, and the schools revamped their sex education program.
Health department official Janet Trueblood said the combination of approaches paid off.
``We have a diverse population,'' she said. ``It was just a matter of rolling up our sleeves and finding some very committed people who were willing to take on the task.''