By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost
“Don’t feed the monkeys,” said a supporter of Planned Parenthood outside the Depot on Montana Avenue. She was referring to four right-to-life protesters with their signs, expressing their views.
Meanwhile, the luncheon inside the Billings landmark was a rally to start a new program to lower the pregnancy rate among Montana’s teenagers. The discussion centered on prevention, not abortion.
Andrea Kane, director of policy and partnerships for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, is a graduate of Cornell University, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Institute for Government and the Brookings Institute.
Her hour-long talk focused on all aspects of teen pregnancy in Montana and the United States. She began with data and trends over the last 60 years. The peak in teen pregnancy occurred not, as might be expected, during the “make love, not war” era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but in 1958, with 96.3 births per 1,000 teen girls in the country.
Teen pregnancies hit an all-time high in 1991 at 118 per 1,000 young women. In 1991, Planned Parenthood began targeting teenagers with information on sex and contraception. The pregnancy rate now stands at 72 pregnancies per 1,000.
Putting faces to the statistics, MTV recently introduced a reality TV show, “Sixteen and Pregnant,” that follows six pregnant teens and their boyfriends. Some critics have said that the series glamorizes the issue, but there’s nothing light or fun about the presentation.
Instead, mothers and fathers who are almost children themselves deal with heavy responsibilities, the curtailment of their social life, and loss of their personal freedom, as well as trying to balance parenthood with school.
The emotional and social cost to pregnant teens is high, and so it the financial cost. Montana’s CHIP, Children’s Health Insurance Program, pays about $700,000 per year for prenatal care and delivery.
But health care is not the only expense. In Montana in 2004, taxpayers paid out $18 million in related costs due to teen pregnancy, including lost taxes, costs of welfare, Medicaid and CHIP, as well as financial assistance with housing and nutrition costs.
The anti-abortion women with their signs in front of the Depot lamented the fact that there are no babies to adopt, which, they said, was due to abortion. What they really mean is that there are very few adoptable white infants, only older and/or mixed race children, as well as children with disabilities. The reason for the lack of adoptable white babies is that while three times more pregnant teens choose to have their baby than choose to get an abortion, most keep their child. Social mores have changed in the past 40-50 years.
Montana teen mothers aged 18-19 outnumber younger teens 2 to 1. It is now common for couples to marry after the birth of their first child, having saved up for a formal wedding.
Teens in the 15-18 age bracket, while a smaller group in this state, face bigger challenges. Will they be able to finish high school? Where will they live? How will they provide food, diapers and clothing for their child? Society and grandparents often step in to help.
What the Montana Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition plans to do is teach sex education and also to encourage peer counseling for any young person who wants it. In an ideal world, all teens would be abstinent or use contraceptives perfectly.
Unfortunately, God made teenagers with raging hormones. For parents who prefer abstinence, strict chaperoning might be the way to go. It certainly works well in many Third World countries as well as in the not so distant past in the West.
What the coalition hopes for is less sex, and more use of contraceptives, especially condoms. They also hope to counteract the wrong picture of sex portrayed in the media – the idea that it’s fun, casual, and that there are no consequences. Teens need to be told that parenthood is a lifetime commitment.
They need to hear the gritty truths about being a parent at 15 or 16, or even 18.
“But there’s not a silver bullet for this or any other hard problem,” said Andrea Kane. “We also know that you do not make good decisions when under the influence of drugs and alcohol. One quarter of teens report that they were drinking or taking drugs when they got pregnant.” Mood-altering chemicals break down inhibitions, something humans have known for centuries.
“We hope to create teen boards in which teens talk to teens,” Ms. Kane continued. “They’re more apt to listen to their peers.”
Wednesday, May 5, is The national Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. To participate in online events, go to Stayteen.org and take the quiz. Find out what you actually know about human sexuality, contraception, pregnancy, and the lifelong challenges of parenthood.