Teen pregnancy rate continues to drop - except among Latinas
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 5, 2007

Yvonne Wingett and Amanda J. Crawford
In many Hispanic homes, there are certain things you don't talk about.

Sex. Condoms. And birth control pills.

Even as teen pregnancy rates have declined in Arizona and across the country over the last decade, the teen pregnancy rate among Latinas remains high.
Experts say messages about abstaining from sex or using contraceptives seems to be working among some teens, but getting through to Hispanic teens is still a challenge.

Cultural and religious reasons, Arizona's high proportion of immigrants, poverty and poor education about sex and birth control are partly to blame, experts say. Community groups don't have enough Spanish-speaking counselors or educators to keep up with the need. The Latina pregnancy rate has gone down slightly in recent years, but not as significantly as the rate among Whites. That has left a growing divide, especially as the Hispanic population has soared. In 2005, more Latina teens got pregnant than all other racial and ethnic groups combined, according to a new report from the state Department of Health Services. Latina teens are three and a half times more likely than White teens to become pregnant in Arizona and are about one-third more likely to get pregnant than Hispanics nationwide.

This has helped keep Arizona's teen pregnancy rate one of the highest in the nation. And Arizona taxpayers are increasingly picking up the tab: 82 percent of all teen births in 2005 were paid for by the state's Medicaid program, up from 71 percent a decade earlier. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy estimates that Arizona taxpayers spent $268 million in 2004 for costs related to teen pregnancies, ranging from health care to foster care to lost income for the moms.

"We still have 14,000 kids who are parents, who really aren't ready to be parents, and that affects their lives and their children's lives," said Sue Gerard, director of the state health department. "We need to do more to prevent this from occurring and specifically in the Hispanic community."

The pregnancy rate among the youngest teens, 14 and under, remains low. But between the ages of 15 and 17 about 1 in 14 Latinas get pregnant each year in Arizona. That compares to about 1 in 67 non-Hispanic White girls of that age.

More than 7,700 Arizona Latinas 10 to 19 years old got pregnant in 2005, up from 5,900 a decade ago. Latinas make up about one-third of all females between 10 and 19, but account for 56 percent of all teen pregnancies among that age group.

Generally, pregnancy rates tend to be higher among the poor, and that means higher rates among minority groups. In Arizona, the pregnancy rate remains high among Blacks and has increased slightly in recent years among Native Americans, but both groups' rates remain lower than Hispanics.

Health officials and advocates believe the teen pregnancy rate is falling overall because teens are either more likely to abstain from sex or use birth control. Some studies also indicate that some teens might be instead engaging in other risky sexual behavior, such as oral sex, at higher rates.

Melissa Fink, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona, said parents might be talking more openly about sex with their children.

But in many Hispanic homes, talking about sex and birth control is taboo, especially among immigrants and second-generation families. They tend to be conservative Catholics who strictly follow the church's teaching that using birth control is a sin.

There's also is often a disconnect between immigrant parents and their children. Parents are busy adjusting to a new country, language and culture, and often work several jobs, while their kids are immersed in the U.S.'s teen culture, entrenched in sexy clothes, sexy music and sexy images on MTV.

"They're in a new country, and are trying to sort things out," said Sonia M.
Pérez, of the National Council of La Raza, who has researched Hispanic teen pregnancy rates. "There's sort of a cultural veil about this issue. There are understood rules about what goes on in Hispanic families, about expectations, about conversations between parents and child. It's not the easiest topic to talk about."

Sometimes, cultural pressures may even lead to teen pregnancies. Immigrant teens who have a hard time fitting in at school or in their neighborhoods, may intentionally get pregnant to make up for other shortcomings."In the Latino community, being a mother is held in such high esteem," said Yolanda Chávez, a bilingual sexuality educator at Planned Parenthood. "Getting pregnant is viewed as something to validate her. I think it may be more prevalent with immigrant youth."

The first time she got pregnant, Amanda, a Latina who asked her last name not be used, was a 13-year-old eighth grader at David Crockett Elementary School. She was running around with the wrong crowd, she says now, and living in an unstable home. Her friends told her she'd have sex with her boyfriend if she really liked him. She named the child Anthony. A year later she gave him up.

Amanda wishes she had waited to have sex. She wishes her parents had talked to her about birth control, but it was just too uncomfortable.

After having Anthony, Amanda went in and out of group homes, and schools.
Like many teen moms, she eventually dropped out of school. She later earned a GED.

Now 18, Amanda is pregnant again. This time, she's engaged to the father, and says she's ready to be a mom.

When teens get pregnant, it affects their lives and their communities.
Teenage mothers are more likely to drop out of school and earn less money in
the long run and remain in poverty. Their children are more likely to end up
in foster care, like baby Anthony.

Gerard, of the state health department, said she thinks that more research
needs to be done to look at the risk factors behind teen pregnancy. She also
hopes that could lead to finding better ways to target the message to
Latinos. Arizona spends about $4 million a year in state and federal funds
for teen pregnancy programs, mostly abstinence-only education. The money is
never enough, she said.

Pregnancy counseling and sex education groups, meanwhile, say they don't
have enough bilingual educators to reach the growing need among

Crisis Pregnancy Centers of Greater Phoenix, which has six centers across
Arizona, provides pregnancy tests, counseling, and abstinence education in
public schools. They've seen enormous increases in the number of Latinas
seeking services. The group has 15 staff members; two speak Spanish. About
five of its 100 volunteers are bilingual.

Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, is overwhelmed with demand for its sex
education classes, which are based on abstinence, but also teach about birth
control, healthy relationships, and dating. Educators sometimes have to turn
people away.

About 22,500 people in the Valley and northern Arizona had sex education
classes by Planned Parenthood educators between July 2005 and September
2006, said Fink. Forty-one percent of them were Hispanic. Planned Parenthood
has two full-time teachers, and one part-time teacher; one speaks Spanish.

"It is a challenge constantly for us," said Barbara Willis, Crisis Pregnancy
Center's executive director, particularly reaching Hispanic teens. "So much
of it boils down to communication. I think they don't think us, in
middle-class White America, can relate to their situation."