Common ground in the battle over teen pregnancies

Comprehensive sex eduacation key to solving New London’s teen pregnancy plague, experts say

by Shira Golding via flickr

by Shira Golding via flickr

Jan. 5 2009

WASHINGTON-In his sweeping speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer, President-elect Barack Obama may have touched upon the key to one of New London’s most vexing and heartbreaking problems.

“We may not agree on abortion,” then-Senator Obama said, “but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.”

As the national teen pregnancy rate rises for the first time in 15 years, health experts, community workers and legislators from New London to Washington hope the “common ground” solution on which people on both sides of the abortion debate can agree is comprehensive sex education.

Advocates of comprehensive sex education-which covers contraception as well as abstinence-have gained ground in the last year. A long-awaited Congress-backed study found abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which the Bush administration supports, to be inadequate and ineffective. As a result, 17 states including Connecticut have refused money for the programs; now comprehensive sex education advocates are hoping the federal and state governments will show them the money.

In New London, the time couldn’t be more ripe. Teen pregnancy rates in the city are soaring, even as they’re declining across Connecticut. In 2004 births to teens accounted for roughly 14 percent of births in New London, more than double the statewide rate. In Groton, by contrast, births to teens accounted for only 7 percent. And those figures do not account for teen pregnancies that ended in abortions.

Perhaps the most disheartening fact: no one’s sure what the reason is.

“We’re still continuing to think about and wrestle with the why,” Laurel Holmes, who heads Lawrence and Memorial Hospital’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force, said. “We’ve been focusing on how we can reverse this.”

Formed 10 years ago, the task force includes almost 60 members who range from health professionals and civil servants, to educators and religious leaders, Holmes said. In 2005 the group commissioned a study by sociologist Susan Philliber, whose findings were illuminating, if not entirely surprising.

Philliber discovered that most teen mothers in New London lived in “stressed neighborhoods” plagued by poverty, poorly performing schools and dysfunctional family situations. More than half were black or Hispanic, and most had not finished high school.

New London’s teen pregnancy plague is in part a demographic issue. Roughly 16 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, compared with 9 percent in Groton and 8 percent statewide, according to the report.

The problem is also circular. Between 1991 and 2004, teen births in Connecticut cost taxpayers almost $2 billion, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. Most of these costs arose from the needs of children born to teen mothers, such as public health care, welfare, and incarceration, the group found.

But Philliber’s report identified another problem, one which the city could more easily fix. Teen pregnancies in New London were not driven only by poverty, the researcher found, but a lack of scientifically-accurate sex education in schools.

“Teachers in New London schools have not have been trained to offer sexuality education, have no standard curriculum in place, and there is confusion about policies related to such education,” Philliber wrote in the report.

So for the first time this fall New London High School introduced a comprehensive sex education curriculum in tenth grade health classes. The curriculum, called “Making Proud Choices!” covers decision-making skills and contraception techniques, including condom use and abstinence, according to Alison Ryan, supervisor of curriculum for New London Public Schools.

The teen pregnancy task force also spearheaded a variety of programs for teenagers offered outside the classroom. Many are funded by the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut, which devoted nearly $50,000 of its $40 million endowment this year to combating teen pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections, according to program director Jennifer O’Brien.

For instance, the foundation’s grants fund “Teen Talk,” a series of sexual health discussions at New London’s Planned Parenthood center and “Real Life, Real Talk,” a program designed to teach parents and church leaders how to talk to youth about sex.

“We sort of have this modern myth that if we tell kids about sex they’ll go and do it,” said Kate Ott, associate director of the Westport-based Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, who facilitated workshops for clergy members in New London last month. “That’s actually wrong.”

Other programs the foundation funds emphasize the opportunities teens would lose out on as a parent. The task force’s own youth group, “B Tru 2 U,” rarely talks about sex, according to organizer Rita Whitehead.

Whitehead’s “core group” consists of five boys who squeeze into her van and attend events across the community. They’ve marched in the Hope Week parade, attended a board of education meeting at City Hall and even toured a police station.

“The more involved in the community they are,” Whitehead explained, “the less likely they’ll do anything to harm the community.”

These projects are encouraging, but they reach a relatively small number of kids-many of whom are self-selected and not necessarily at risk of mothering or fathering a baby. That’s why many New London health experts are eager for comprehensive sex education to become a state and federal priority.

Here’s where Barack Obama and the abortion debate comes in.

It’s clear that unplanned pregnancies drive abortion rates. Roughly half of all pregnancies aren’t planned, and 40 to 50 percent of those result in an abortion, according to the National Campaign. But it’s less obvious that the hot-button abortion issue should influence efforts to reduce births to teens-after all, teenage mothers didn’t have abortions.

Yet, thanks to the ongoing political struggle between religious conservatives and secular progressives- the so-called culture wars- the two issues have become entangled.

In Connecticut a bill to fund “comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education to teenagers, teachers, or parent/guardian training programs” died in the education committee earlier this year. Among those who spoke at a press conference heralding the Healthy Teens Act were New London Mayor Kevin Cavanagh, school superintendent Chris Clouet and Rita Whitehead, the B Tru 2 U organizer.

The bill’s main opponent was the Family Institute of Connecticut, a group that favors abstinence-only until marriage programs, which was leery of a bill that had Planned Parenthood’s blessing.

“The first rule of thumb,” said Peter Wolfgang, the Family Institute’s executive director, “is that you don’t lower the pregnancy rate by working with the folks who profit through abortion and birth control.”

Proponents of the Healthy Teens Act point to a recent survey by National Public Radio, Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care non-profit, which found overwhelming parental support for comprehensive sex education. The poll found that 88 percent of parents of junior high school students believe their kids should be taught how to use contraceptives.

“Most people understand this to be an absolutely middle-of-the-road common sense issue,” said Susan Yolen, vice-president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. “If people don’t agree with abortion, this is what they’ve been advocating for.”

On a national level legislators who support sex education are making a point of bringing abortion rights opponents into their fold. The Prevention First Act, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the first day of the current Congress, would have funded school programs that teach contraception as well as abstinence. The bill, which stalled in committee, identified abortion reduction as one of its main goals.

In the House of Representatives, a similar bill was sponsored by Rep. Timothy Ryan, D-Ohio, an abortion rights opponent, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who supports abortion rights. Its name: The Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act. The bill will be re-introduced in the next session, a DeLauro aide said.

“Of all the important goals this initiative can help us reach,” said DeLauro, who represents Connecticut’s 3rd District, “perhaps the most important is that it helps move us all forward on this issue, beyond the question over the legality of abortion and toward actually reducing the need.”

Andrea Kane, the National Campaign’s policy director, said her organization is making a point these days of embracing abortion reduction in its platform.

“It wasn’t our primary driver, but it’s certainly one of the very compelling reasons to get more attention,” Kane said.

The national reproductive health community has asked the incoming Obama administration to spend at least $50 million per year on comprehensive sex education, according to William Smith, vice president for public policy for the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States, a research and lobbying group.

Smith said he knows where Congress can find the money-the Bush administration has spent nearly $180 million a year on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs which he expects the new government to abandon.

“This is a common ground issue,” Smith said. “We’ve overwhelmingly elected a president who wants to end the culture wars and I think comprehensive sex education can be a part of that.”

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