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.
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.
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.
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 Spanish-speakers.