Column, "Teen Pregnancy," by Haydeé Morales, Vice President of Education, Training, and Margaret Sanger Center International, Planned Parenthood of New York City, published in Spanish in El Diario (5/26/10)
This Month is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, and with teen pregnancy rates rising for the first time since the 1990s, this has never been a more important subject.
However, as admirable as the goals of this month-long campaign are, I have to say I think their focus is all wrong.
Make no mistake about it Ė PPNYC has been, and will always be, dedicated to ensuring every child is a wanted child. Yet to only focus on pregnancy is to ignore the fire for its smoke. Beneath high rates of teen pregnancy lies a glaring problem Ė our teens donít have the foundation they need to make healthy, safe decisions when it comes to sex and sexuality. And when thatís the case, pregnancy is only the beginning.
Make no mistake about it. Our national, and local, rates of teen pregnancy are higher than most. Nationally, there are about 71 pregnancies per every 1,000 women aged 15-19. In New York City, that rate jumps to 83 per every 1,000. As Latinos, our rates are even steeper Ė at five times the rates for non-Hispanic white teens.
And, perhaps more significantly, these teens arenít getting pregnant on purpose. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 82% of teen pregnancies are unplanned. Eighty percent of teens surveyed said it was important to them to avoid pregnancy, yet only 43% of those who were sexually active used contraception consistently.
What these numbers tell us is that teens arenít having safe sex Ė a problem whose consequences spread far wider than pregnancy. Although 15-to-24-year-olds represent only one-quarter of the sexually active people in the United States, they account for nearly half of all new sexually transmitted infections that occur each year. In New York, itís worse. Among women in New York City, can you guess which population has the highest rates of both gonorrhea and chlamydia? Itís teenage girls. Among men, teenage boys claim the number two spot, narrowly bumped from the top slot by men aged 20-25.
Itís time we started looking at real solutions. We know that sex education in schools makes a real difference Ė it helps teens to delay their first sexual contact and to make healthier and safer decisions if and when they do become sexually active. We know that when parents have honest and open conversations with their kids about sex and sexuality, their kids listen. And we know that teens need access to affordable and reliable contraception and reproductive health care. We know all these things work, yet far too many parents avoid talking to their kids, and New York City still does not require comprehensive sex education to be taught as a part of the curriculum.
To be sure, teen pregnancy is an important issue to discuss. Itís a complicated issue with very real consequences, and is influenced by many factors such as culture, economic background, and opportunity.
Yet, to only discuss rates of teen pregnancy is setting our children up to fail Ė by not making sure that they have accurate, comprehensive information about sex and sexuality. Instead of just focusing on teen pregnancy this month, letís focus on our teens Ė and make sure they have all the tools and information they need to make the right decisions in their lives.