The live of teen mothers are divided in two
Teen pregnancy part one of a series exploring a critical community issue
In 1986, Madonna reached the top of the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart with her song, “Papa Don’t Preach.” Beverly Donofrio’s 1990 book, “Riding in Cars with Boys,” was well received by most accounts, and was later made into a 2001 film starring Drew Barrymore. “Juno,” a film released early this year, was nominated for several Academy Awards, and received the honor of Best Writing (Original Screenplay) at last Sunday’s Oscars.
Teenage pregnancy, an issue once considered taboo by many, is quickly becoming a topic of discussion in America today. However, the subject is being brought to light by more than mere pop culture references, and it’s hitting much closer to home for Morgan County residents.
On Monday, February 4, the Greene County School Board voted unanimously in favor of a plan that would separate all of the system’s classes on the basis of gender, a plan set to begin with the 2008-2009 school year.
Teenage pregnancy was a factor in this decision.
“Superintendent McCullough stated, ‘We have a wonderful community here in Greene County, but our students are not having the type of success that they truly deserve. By converting our schools to Single Gender Academies, we expect student achievement and college acceptance will increase, and discipline rates, teen pregnancy, and dropout rates will decrease,’” according to information on the Greene County Board of Education Web site, www.greene.k12.ga.us.
Greene County does have reason to be concerned – the teenage birth rate in the neighboring county is 65 girls, ages 15 to 19, per every 1000, the very same as Athens-Clarke County, according to information provided by the Northeast Health District.
Morgan County, on the other hand, falls at the low end of spectrum when it comes to teenage birth rates in the Northeast Health District – 56 girls per every 1000. Oconee and Walton counties come in under Morgan County with 22 and 53, respectively. Meanwhile, the teenage birth rate in Elbert County is 58 girls per every 1000; Oglethorpe County, 63; Greene and Clarke counties, 65; Madison County, 66; Barrow County, 67; and Jackson County, 73.
Compared to other counties in the district, then, Morgan is third when it comes to low teenage birth rates. Even statewide, the teenage birth rate is one point more than Morgan County’s – 57 girls per every 100.
Further, over the past 10 years, Morgan County has seen a decrease in teenage births, from as many as 38 teenagers delivering children in 1998 to as few as 22 teenagers delivering children in 2006. The good news, however, ends here.
Nationally, the teenage birth rate is 42 girls, ages 15 to 19, per every 1000 – a good 14 points less than that of Morgan County’s. However, compared to other developed countries, the nation, state and even Morgan County fall short – in the France, the teenage birth rate is 10; Germany, 13; Australia, 20; and the United Kingdom, 28.
“Teen fertility rates are dropping, but the rates are still higher than other developed countries,” Perinatal Epidemiologist Holly Cirri, of the Northeast Health District, said.
When it comes to Morgan County, the percentage of teenagers having babies also differs when it comes to race and age. From 2000 to 2004, 22 percent of white teenagers, ages 10 to 19, had a baby. Meanwhile, 40 percent of black teenagers within the same age bracket had a baby.
Of the 22 percent of white teenagers, 21 percent are between the ages of 17 and 19; and, of the 40 percent of black teenagers, 34 percent are in the same age bracket. Currently in the Morgan County School System, however, students receive only two classes when it comes to sex education – abstinence and sex education in eighth grade and human sexuality in ninth grade, neither of which involve students between the ages of 17 and 19.
“The kids in the upper grades – tenth, 11th and 12th – say they need to be reminded, to have this curriculum every year,” Morgan County Public Health Educator Mitzi Jackson said. “But, because of scheduling and the curriculum they have to take to graduate, there’s really not much time.”
Despite the time students spend in sex education, however, many are still choosing to have sex. In 2001, 559 Morgan County teenagers were asked whether or not they had sexual intercourse. According to research provided by the Northeast Health District, 10 percent of survey participants under the age of 14 had had sex; 27 percent of 14-year-olds had; 30 percent of 15-year-old; 46 percent of 16-year-olds had; 55 percent of 17-year-olds had; and 67 percent of those 18-years-old and over had.
“I know it’s accepted,” Jackson said, of the reasons teenagers choose to have sex. “Teens aren’t looked down on because they are sexually active.”
While abstinence is being taught to teenagers at school, many are still choosing to have sex. However, many of the very same teenagers are also choosing to go to the Morgan County Health Department and participate in the Family Planning Program, which provides reasonably priced birth control, physicals and Pap smears to any woman of child-bearing age.
“Over 95 percent of the kids that come in for birth control are already sexually active when they come in,” Gilbert said.
If teens visit the Health Department for contraception, they are required to watch a film on birth control, then counseled extensively and, finally, are they offered the opportunity to join the Family Planning Program, according to Morgan County Department of Health Nurse Manager Mary Alice Gilbert.
In 2006, 182 Morgan County teens came into the Health Department and participated in the Family Planning Program. Further, the birth rate of those participating came to 40, 16 points below Morgan County’s average and proof that the program is having an effect.
The kicker when it comes to opinions about teenage sex and birth control, however, lies in the fact that many individuals agree with giving sexually active teenagers contraception, but few feel that their opinion is shared by their community.
According to a statewide survey conducted in April 2007, 71 percent of Georgia residents support the idea of providing birth control to teenagers, but only 31 percent feel that this is a widely held opinion in their community.
“Communities overwhelmingly support provisional birth control for sexually active teens,” Cirri said. “They (individual Georgia residents) think they stand alone. It’s a perception issue of acceptance.”
Contraception and Family Planning Program aside, for some Morgan County teens walking through the doors of the Health Department, the idea of pregnancy prevention has come too late.
Most of the teens that come to the Health Department already expecting got pregnant by accident, according to Gilbert. And, more often than not, they’re not happy about it.
“Sometimes it’s by accident,” Gilbert said. “They didn’t mean to; it just happened.”
No matter the cause of the pregnancy, when expecting teens come into the Health Department they are offered counseling, including plans for their pregnancy and information on Medicaid and the WIC program; help finding a local physician for their prenatal care; and birth control for after the birth.
Both Jackson and Gilbert, however, can attest to the fact that more than a few of the Morgan County teenage girls that wind up pregnant are happy about it; they wanted, and even took steps to begin, their pregnancy.
“A lot of them were on birth control and came off birth control to get pregnant because they choose to get pregnant,” Jackson said. “I’ve been told by other students [that teenagers choose to get pregnant] to keep boyfriends or just to have some to take care of or love because they don’t have plans after 12th grade.”
“Sometimes they say they think they will be able to hold on to their boyfriend,” Gilbert said. “If they have the baby, he’ll stay with them. If they have the baby, it will love them and they want something to love back in return. Sometimes, in the home environment, if they’re not cared for or loved enough, they think that the baby will fill that void.”
No matter how the statistics are looked at, one thing is clear – teenage pregnancy is an issue in this nation, state and here in Morgan County.
And maybe Madonna was right; the only way to a solution is to begin a dialogue: “What I need right now is some good advice, please, Papa don’t preach…”