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Teen Pregnancy Rates Down in Utah; Some Credit Access to Birth Control and Sex Ed

Andrea Smardon

As the public school year comes to a close, there will be fewer teen mothers in Utah missing out on graduation. Teen pregnancy rates in Utah have plummeted in the last few years. A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the rate of births to teen mothers across the country dropped by 25% from 2007 to 2011. The rate in Utah fell by almost 30 percent. Among Hispanic teens in the state – it dropped by 40 percent. The report did not address the reasons behind the decline, but some Salt Lake area adults and teens believe it has something to do with access to birth control and better sex education.

When the closing bell rings at West High School in Salt Lake City, teenagers cross the train tracks and head over to the Capitol West Boys and Girls Club. They pick up a basketball, shoot some pool, or sit on the couches and eat snacks. The Club’s Teen Center Director Jessica Hill could almost be mistaken for one of the kids - with her purple mohawk and jean shorts. Hill says teen pregnancy used to be a regular thing at the club.

“Every year we would have about one pregnancy, either caused by one of our kids or pregnancy from one of our girls, every single year, one sometimes two,” Hill says. But she says there have been no teen births in the club for two years. What’s changed?  For one thing, they have been teaching a federally funded class about personal responsibility called All4You!, which includes sex ed.  Every week, teens with permission from their parents get some frank lessons about pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and how to prevent them – including the details about various forms of contraception.  Hill says the class fills a real need.

“They’re not being talked to about this at school or necessarily in their home a lot,” Hill says. “I think having a facilitator that’s comfortable talking about these sensitive topics is pretty foreign to them.” 

16-year-old Esperanza has been in the program for 2 years. Club officials asked that KUER use only her first name. She says she finds it helpful to have adults who can answer her questions.

“Jess gave a lot of information, like stuff they don’t really say in school. It’s just more educational for me… and for other people too,” Esperanza says.

Hill says many kids in the class have tough situations at home, and they need some support to take their lives in a different direction.

“A lot of the kids in the class, their mom got pregnant when she was sixteen, their sister’s pregnant, their cousins pregnant, it’s just the norm, and they come forward and they’re like not me, I’m going to college,” Hill says.

“It’s true,” Esperanza agrees.

Esperanza says her family struggles; she has no father at home, and she hasn’t seen her older brother in a while, since he “got in trouble“ - as she puts it. For a while, she was hanging out with a crowd who she says was skipping school and doing bad things. Now, she says she’s turning things around.  She’s changed who her friends are and is doing well in school. Esperanza believes she can reach her goal of being a pediatrician.

“I hang out with different people, because I don’t want them getting in the way of achieving my dreams,” Esperanza says.

Hill says it takes more than just sex ed to help teens make those kind of changes. Teens in the All4You! program learn how to articulate their values, communicate their boundaries, and they spend time doing community service.  This year, the teens volunteered with younger kids in the Rose Park Elementary after-school program. 

“It gives a sense of usefulness and empowerment, and helps them think about others,” Hill says. “Teens that have higher self-esteem are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

Annabel Sheinberg is Education Director for Planned Parenthood Utah.  She says these types of evidence-based programs have already been proven to work at reducing teen pregnancy. She says another factor in Utah is increased access to long-acting-reversible methods of contraception like implants or IUDS.

“I really do believe it’s a two-fold approach to reducing teen pregnancy, and part of it does deal with healthcare - access to services, access to contraceptives - and then also access to education. I think those are really what can make teen pregnancy go down,” Sheinberg says.

Planned Parenthood works through the federal government and the Utah Department of Health to fund an abstinence program for middle schoolers called Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program® or TOP®. Sheinberg says one of the benefits of the program is that it gets parents talking to teenagers about sex.

“There’s maybe more of an awareness that this something that parents can really talk to their teens about, and it makes a difference when parents do. The more parents get that message that this is something to talk about, the more we can continue to make headway,” Sheinberg says.

Angelica Palafox has enrolled her son Benito in TOP® for 2 years at a Midvale Community Center.  With her son translating, Palafox explains how she has benefitted from the program.

“She says that it’s a very good program because it teaches about the risk of teen pregnancy.  She gets to learn more stuff from me that I learn and go and talk to her about it… and know what I need as a teenager,” Benito translates for his mother.

This year, there were 54 young people who participated in TOP® from middle schools and community centers in Midvale, Northwest, and Glendale.  But Sheinberg says there are more who end up being affected by the program.

“We know parents are the most effective sex educators.  Peers are the second most influential when it comes to teens’ decision-making process.  And if through these efforts we are impacting teens, I do feel confident that this has spillover effect - with those teens being able to talk with confidence and represent what they’re learning, I think we’re impacting more than we know,” Sheinberg says.

The federal Affordable Care Act provides funding through 2015 to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in Utah and around the country.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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