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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Stacy Erickson holds her new son at LDS Hospital on Monday. About 83 Utah women per 1,000 gave birth in 2006.

If giving birth were an Olympic event, Utah women would win the all-around team gold medal plus win several specific category contests among Americans.

Utah women had the nation's highest fertility rate in 2006 — for the "all around" — according to Census estimates released Monday. About one of every 12 Utah women of child-bearing age gave birth that year. Nationally, only one of every 18 did.

Utah also essentially earned gold medals for the lowest percentage of those giving birth who were unmarried, the lowest percentage who were in the work force, and the lowest percentage of births to mothers who receive cash public assistance.

"That's not a real shocker" about Utah scoring the top fertility rate, said Brooke Welsh, a labor and delivery charge nurse at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo. That hospital had 471 births last month, for example, about 15 per day.

"Usually, someone is in labor here. Rarely does it slow down to the point that you can sit down and do nothing. It's pretty consistent all the time," she said.

"It's clear that Mormon culture is what drives it for the most part," said University of Utah research economist Pam Perlich, who adds the fertility rate in Utah is higher than even in Mexico.

"Women get married here younger and have more babies here than the national average over the course of their whole life. The reason is the LDS culture" and its strong emphasis on families, she said.

Lois Bloebaum, manager of the reproductive health program for the Utah Department of Health, said a lesser, contributing factor could be "that Utah has no state funding for family planning services for low-income women, which is different from the other states."

Still, she said other surveys have shown that only about 30 percent of Utah pregnancies are unplanned, compared to a national average of about 50 percent. "Because Utah has one of the lowest rates of unintended pregnancy, that suggests the reasons for high fertility are philosophical or cultural," Bloebaum said.

Yet another reason why Utah's fertility rate may be high is a growing number of Hispanic women in the state, "and their fertility rate is higher than non-Hispanic whites," said Juliette Tennert, Utah state demographer.

She adds that the high fertility rate is nothing new. "Utah's birth rate on average has been 25 percent higher than the national rate over the past 50 years, and the trend obviously continues."

Perlich adds that Utah's high fertility rate means Utah "permanently will have more children per capita than other states." That coupled with the aging baby boom generation entering retirement years also means that workers in the state "will be carrying more dependents" than most states and make it a challenge to fund such things as schools.

The new estimates say that 83.2 of every 1,000 Utah women ages 15 to 50 gave birth in 2006. The national average was 54.9. So Utah's rate was 52 percent higher.

No other state was even close. The state with the second highest fertility rate was Nebraska, with a rate of 70.2 births per 1,000 women.

The state with the nation's lowest fertility rate was New Hampshire at 42.0 per 1,000, or merely about half of Utah's rate.

The lion's share of Utah women who gave birth were married. Census estimates say 14.3 percent of those who gave birth in 2006 had never been married — about half the national average of 28.4 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, almost half of the women who gave birth in the District of Columbia — 48.5 percent — had never been married.

Utah apparently has more stay-at-home moms than average, even though about half of those who gave birth did have jobs. Estimates say 46.6 percent of Utah women who gave birth were in the labor force, compared to a national average of 57.3 percent. Iowa had the highest percentage at 72 percent.

Bloebaum said because more Utah mothers are married, "perhaps because of their husband's income they may not be as likely to work." Also, she said Utahns tends to have more children, so staying at home may make more economic sense than working and paying for child care.

Utah had the lowest percentage of all births that were to mothers receiving cash public assistance: 17.5 percent, compared to a national average of 30.8 percent.

Utah ranked sixth lowest in the number of women who gave birth who were in poverty, 16.7 percent, compared to a national average of 25.2 percent.

Perlich said, "Our population marries at a higher rate than is the case nationally, so there are fewer single moms. There is a high correlation between single moms and poverty. So when a higher proportion is married, there is a lower poverty rate."

Utah was 21st lowest in the number of women who gave birth who lack high school degrees, 14.5 percent, compared to a national average 17.9 percent. And 13.9 percent of Utah women who gave birth were foreign-born, compared to a national average of 20 percent.

Some national-level data from the new estimates were also interesting. The Census figures that 20 percent of women ages 40 to 44 were childless in 2006, or twice as high as the level 30 years earlier.

Also, the highest levels of current fertility were among those with a graduate or professional degree.

Also, women receiving public assistance have a fertility rate three times higher than those who do not receive it. Those receiving it had a birthrate of 155 babies per 1,000 women, compared to 53 births per 1,000 women not receiving it.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com