Teen pregnancy rates not dropping
Jenny Gonzalez has plans. She wants to learn knitting, graduate from South Tahoe High School and become an attorney, despite people telling her the profession is boring.
After November, the 16-year-old’s life will include her first child.
Gonzalez is part of a group of teenagers keeping the South Lake Tahoe adolescent birth rate steady even though county numbers are dropping.
It’s a vexing problem full of health, social and economic implications.
Health officials say young mothers are more likely to depend on welfare, drop out of school and live in impoverished conditions.
Babies born to teenagers have a higher risk of low birth weight, dying in infancy and are likely to have children themselves at an early age.
Valerie Finnigan, public health nurse for El Dorado County, visits with pregnant teenagers frequently and listed various reasons for teenage pregnancies.
Youths who use contraceptives likely use them wrong, Finnigan said. The Latino culture, which has a large population in South Lake Tahoe, has emphasis on family and religion. The closest abortion clinics are in Reno and Sacramento, each about an hour’s drive.
“Basically that’s the barrier to a lot of women in town,” Finnigan said. “If you’re living in a rural area like Tahoe, abortion services are limited.”
Finnigan has seen pregnant teenagers as young as 14. She pushes birth control as the primary tool to curb teenage pregnancies. Free condoms and emergency contraception (the “morning-after pill” in layman’s terms), a powerful two-pill dose that neutralizes pregnancies up to three days after sex, are available at her office.
The efforts seem to be reducing teen pregnancy in Placerville. Bobbie Glass, who works as an advocate for teenagers, said her number of clients has dropped to 15 this year from 30 last year.
Glass has guesses but no specific information on the drop.
“We can’t quite put our finger on it,” she said. “It’s excellent. We’re kind of just holding our breath.”
According to the 2004 Health Status Report, El Dorado ranks seventh best in the state in the number of teenage mothers. The report stated that for every 1,000 females from 15 to 19 years old, 23 are mothers. The number has been dropping since 1997 when the rate was 28.
It beats California’s average rate of 45. It’s also lower than the county rates for Sacramento (43) and Amador (27).
Lois Hathway, a health program manager who worked on the county’s health status report, said the overall decrease of teenage pregnancies could relate to the high per capita income and education level of county residents.
Yet for the past five or so years, an average of 30 teenagers give birth to babies at Barton Memorial Hospital, Finnigan said. In addition, the number of students that attend the Young Parents Program has climbed.
The program, located on the Mt. Tallac Continuation School campus at South Tahoe High School, caters to pregnant students by offering parenting classes and helping them obtain a diploma.
Susan Baker, alternative education coordinator, attributes the increased number to more young mothers getting their education rather than more teenagers getting pregnant.
Jenny, the hopeful lawyer, was at the program last week, knitting the beginnings of a yellow blanket for her child. She feels a responsibility to keep her baby.
“I don’t believe in abortion or adoption because I’m the one who’s suffering and going through the pain,” she said. “I have all my family’s support and my mom is excited because she’s going to be a grandma for the first time.”
Jenny said the baby’s father is still around and works multiple jobs to earn money.
A few feet from Jenny sat 17-year-old Alejandra Loyola. Alejandra said she and the baby’s father are no longer together. She is six months pregnant with a daughter.
“I just thought if I was responsible enough to be in a relationship, I should be responsible for the consequences,” she said.
While Finnigan presses safe sex at the health clinic, Julia Russell emphasizes abstinence to freshman in her health classes.
But even though her class is abstinence based, other issues discussed are contraception, love, social aspects of being sexually active and sexually transmitted diseases.
“You carry your sexual history with you forever,” Russell said, repeating a sentiment she uses in class.
Two years ago, South Tahoe High School participated in a California Healthy Kids Survey. It found students were becoming more sexually active between the freshman and junior grades.
Specifically, 85 percent of 200 freshman stated they haven’t had sexual intercourse. It dropped to 54 percent when 148 juniors answered the question.
“They’re good when I have them but then things change,” Russell said. “They have cars, they go out.”
Jenny realizes she can’t go out anymore. She has to take care of her baby, which she thinks will be a boy based on the seven dreams she’s had.
“It’s hard because no more parties, you can’t go drink because you have someone else in your life right now,” she said.
– E-mail William Ferchland at email@example.com.