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Dona Ana County Teen Pregnancy Panel Pushes for Mandatory Sex Ed

July 8, 2008

By Ashley Meeks, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.

Jul. 8—- To read a report from the latest teen pregnancy prevention work group meeting, click here.

— To see the complete teen pregnancy series, click here.

LAS CRUCES — On the heels of national data ranking New Mexico and Texas dead last in teen pregnancies by state — and reports that Dona Ana County girls are considering Juarez as an option to deal with unintended pregnancies — the county’s teen pregnancy prevention group has announced it will be pressing New Mexico legislators for a bill requiring high school students to take a health class, including comprehensive sex education, to graduate.

According to the latest research from the Kids Count 2008 data book, released on June 12, New Mexico and Texas tied for last place among states with the highest teen birth rate — 62 teen births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19. (The nationwide average is 40.) Only the District of Columbia, at 63 births, ranked worse.

In Dona Ana County, the most recent

statistics from the state Department of Health put those numbers the highest in the state, with 606 of Las Cruces’ 2007 hospital deliveries born to school-age mothers, 55 to mothers 15 and younger.

Teen Pregnancy Prevention Workgroup Chairman Earl Nissen of Las Cruces said he had heard two recent reports of girls from Dona Ana County traveling to Mexico for an abortion.

“If someone wants to terminate their pregnancy in Dona Ana County, it’s a hard process to get done. That’s something we have to address,” Nissen said.

One Las Cruces mother who works in the women’s health field, and requested anonymity for fear of losing her job, said she knew of at least one Las Cruces teen who had planned to go to Juarez for an abortion in 2007, just after receiving her driver’s license. She did not know if the girl went through with the plan.

“Teenagers in our community are looking for services to terminate pregnancies in Mexico,” said the woman, whose friend’s daughter was a friend and classmate of the pregnant girl. “Her mother just told me that story in relation to, “Gosh, what are our young girls facing? … Are we still living in these times? Our daughters don’t feel that they have any option?’”

The nearest abortion services to Las Cruces are provided in El Paso, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

When asked about the possibility of New Mexico girls traveling to Juarez for an illegal procedure, Johnny Wilson, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood in Albuquerque, said “unfortunately, I think it’s very possible.”

Work group member Carol Tucker Trelease said she hadn’t heard the Juarez stories in a long time, until recently: “Those rumors had gone away for a while,” she said.

Trelease, the executive director of a family foundation that promotes family planning, sex education and reproductive rights, has been working on similar issues since 1974, when she began work with Planned Parenthood of New Mexico, which has no Las Cruces office.

“It’s frustrating, but you don’t give up,” Trelease said. “We still have a high teen birth rate, so that’s problematic, but at least we’re talking now about having comprehensive health education perhaps made available.”

Most effective, Trelease said, would be education combined with clinical family-planning services, available through the state Department of Health and at school-based health centers; programs that encourage male and parental involvement; and encouraging students to be active in service-learning.

Trelease said a teen pregnancy prevention work group in Espanola is also interested in pressing for a statewide sex ed requirement: “Information does not cause sexual activity,” she said. “That doesn’t happen. Information promotes responsibility if people decide to be sexually active.”

In January 2007, the Las Cruces school board voted 4 to 1 in favor of implementing the state-mandated sex-education curriculum. Las Cruces Public Schools Superintendent Stan Rounds said “certain parts of human sexuality” are already integrated into state-mandated curriculum.

“This is an issue that tends to be fairly controversial,” Rounds said. “The balancing act is making sure children receive information, while not crossing certain bounds.”

The Dona Ana County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Work Group plans to meet with legislators at its August meeting. Rounds said any bill would have to “give enough latitude to the district to design and implement the curriculum appropriately for every child.”

A study for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of more than 2,000 students in four abstinence-only programs over four to six years found “no effect on the sexual abstinence of youth.”

But Rounds said that doesn’t mean comprehensive sex education is “a magic bullet” for what he acknowledged was a “deluge of teen pregnancies.”

“It’s a bigger issue, unfortunately, than just education. It’s a societal values issue, it’s a community attentiveness and intervention issue. I think if we had the magic bullet, we’d have already solved this issue,” Rounds said. “I’ve been in this particular debate several times. Legislating it doesn’t make it work any better than making it work at a local policy level.”

Wilson said he agreed that there was no “magic bullet” to prevent teen pregnancies, but that “the only thing schools can do … that has a chance is comprehensive sex ed.”

State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana, said she would have to study the proposal and compare it to other states’ experiences before she could say if it were “a real solution.”

“I don’t know that we should be putting the onus on the schools,” said Garcia, though she had read the Kids Count statistics and found them “distressing” and “horrifying.”

“Some of my colleagues have their heads in the sand. (Young people) are having sex at 13 and 14,” said Garcia, who reversed her support of requiring parental consent for family planning services after hearing about a young girl who died because of a botched, illegal abortion.

Garcia said she was in favor of home visits with parents and early intervention among young children, to teach them “that there are certain behaviors that are not good and not acceptable, that they need to turn away from smoking, drinking, doing drugs and along with that, teen pregnancy.”

Ashley Meeks can be reached at ameeks@lcsun-news.com

On the Web

— Kids Count: http://www.kidscount.org/datacenter/summary08/summary11.jsp

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Copyright (c) 2008, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.

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