by Mary Tuma
High school junior Shalon Lewis shows off her life goals through artwork as part of the National Day To Prevent Teen Pregnancy event. Photo by Mary Tuma.
“Our goals and dreams in the future are to graduate from high school and go to college and do what we want to pursue in life,” said Shalon Lewis, a junior at George Gervin High School. “Our art explains that we are able to break the chain even though we have been through things that stop us from doing some things and put us in different predicaments.”
The event, hosted by the City’s Metro Health Project WORTH program, falls on the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and was meant to encourage the San Antonio community to promote effective teen pregnancy prevention. In a city with a teen birth rate that soars 46 percent above the national average, the effort to decrease the staggering figure is a key goal for local health officials.
However, speakers took a moment to celebrate the bright spots made available through recent comparable data—the 2012 birth rate of pregnant women between 15 and 19 years old in Bexar County was 42.8 births per 1,000, a decline of 15 percent since 2010, according to the Metro Health stats. In 2012, Bexar County recorded 543 fewer teen births than in the two years prior.
Local leaders in attendance praised the incremental gain while admitting much more needs to be accomplished to put a dent in the high rate.
“One of the things we decided that was most important to us was to get together and reduce our teen pregnancy rate,” said SA2020 president Darryl Byrd, of the objectives outlined in the citywide plan. “And we’ve knocked our goal out of the park. We’ve already exceeded our goal.”
“But we want to do much better, we’ve recalibrated, we’ve set our goals much higher—[we want] a 25 percent reduction in San Antonio by 2020.”
The road ahead is steep. While the numbers have dipped, the figure continues to hover well above the national teen birth rate of 29.4 births per 1,000. Additionally, repeat teen births in the county made up nearly a quarter of all 2012 teen births, a figure that’s stagnated in the two previous years. The rates mirror Texas’ notoriously high teen birth and pregnancy rates—in 2010, the state had the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, trailing only New Mexico and Mississippi, and the fourth highest teen birth rate, according to a study released this month by the Guttmacher Institute.
And as District Attorney Susan Reed pointed during the morning event, that’s a heavy burden on taxpayers. The 2012 associated costs of teen childbearing in Bexar County totaled an estimated $59.6 million. That includes childwelfare, healthcare, lost revenue and incarceration.
The recent birth rate decline, said Reed, “[
] has a community effect in relation to our justice system, to our cost. If you’re a number cruncher that equates to about $10.9 million to the taxpayer in health care costs that have not had to be spent. So that’s a huge saving.”
The handful of health and advocacy groups in attendance working to prevent teen pregnancy, including the Healthy Futures of Texas, the UT Health Science Center and Bexar County Health Collaborative and Girls, Inc., are taking an all hands-on-deck approach to meet the 25 percent reduction goal. The strategy is comprised of intervention activities such as increased teen healthcare services, community mobilization efforts, stakeholder awareness, youth support programs and evidence-based sexual education programs.
Local students present their visions of the future through art. The exhibit helps highlight citywide efforts to prevent teen pregnancy. Photo by Mary Tuma.
The effort is being aided by a slice of flexible federal Medicaid funds allocated to the local heath district that is flowing toward teen pregnancy prevention over the next three years, as the Current previously reported. The City Council-approved plan (met with backlash from citizens of the religious-right camp) would invest nearly $900,000 of the $1.5 million in long-acting reversible contraceptive access to teenage girls age 13 to 19 (with parental consent if under 18). It also helps subsidize sexual education.
While evidence-based sex ed is now gaining traction at local school districts, that certainly wasn’t always the case, Project WORTH program manager Mario Martinez told the Current following the event. Today, seven school districts and some charter schools, as well, have implemented evidence-based programs, he said.
“San Antonio has made progress in looking at effective programs and we’re seeing more of these programs added by nationally recognized groups. Before, we didn’t have a variety of programs because it takes a long time to demonstrate that they work and for evaluators at the national level to show they actually change behavior,” said Martinez.
The shift parallels the trend rippling through Texas. With a long reputation as the “poster child” for abstinence-only sex education and the leading recipient of federal abstinence-only dollars in the country, Texas schools are slowly making their way toward abstinence-plus sex education programs, which doesn’t necessarily qualify as “evidence based” but does include medically accurate information about basic contraception, a study by the Texas Freedom Network found. More than 25 percent of districts in the 2011 TFN study reported using abstinence-plus sex education programs, a 3.6 percent increase of districts from 2007-08.
So what can we attribute the stunningly high teen birth rate in San Antonio to? Martinez said singling out a reason is a futile effort. Rather, it’s a confluence of factors.
“There are really lots of social determinants that can cause a teen pregnancy. National experts have found that there is a combination of more than 400 such determinants, so there isn’t one thing that you can pin point and say 'if only addressed this we get to prevent teen pregnancy',” he said. “That’s why it takes various strategies, like parent-child communication, effective education programs, access to health care services for teenagers and making sure we as a community—like what we’re doing today—support their goals for the future.”