Teen Pregnancy Rates Still High In Southwest

January 29, 2011

FLAGSTAFF -- Recent U.S. government statistics show a steep decline in the number of pregnant teens nationwide -- 39 births per 1,000 girls, ages 15 through 19. That’s the lowest rate since records have been kept. But the Southwest still ranks very high. New Mexico has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country, followed by Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

Teen mom Angela Rodriguez says she learned about sex from school. Her parents never talked about it except to say: Don’t do it.

“I didn’t take birth control because of religious reasons because my family’s really religious about that stuff,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez got pregnant when she was 16. Before her son was born she had planned to become a doctor.

“Your priorities are less now because your baby comes first,” she says.

Rodriguez still hopes to become a pediatrician someday. And she was able to get free childcare through Early Head Start so she could stay in school. She graduates in June with the help of the Flagstaff school district’s Teenage Parent Program.

But tears stream down her cheeks as she thinks about how hard the last couple years have been.

“Because I pretty much had to do it by myself because his dad isn’t really involved,” Rodriguez says. “My parents are mad that I got pregnant and they’re like you decided to have a baby so it’s your problem.”

Rodriguez isn’t alone. Thousands of girls are dealing with similar struggles.

Nationwide fewer teens are getting pregnant. But teen pregnancy rates remain the highest in the Southwest and the highest among Latinas.

“The rates have come down but they remain stubbornly high,” says Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “They remain higher than they are in most other states and particularly high in certain racial and ethnic groups.”

Sexual health educator Rachel Billowitz has been teaching the Latino community in Flagstaff for almost 10 years. And she says, for many within the culture, teen pregnancy isn’t really viewed as a problem.

“So there’s more this belief of babies are born to young women that’s just how it works,” Billowitz says.

She says the Latino culture can be fatalistic. In other words outcomes are predetermined by fate or luck.

“So if a young person believes that their lives are just going to unfold as they will, that’s harder to encourage them to take proactive, protective measures to avoid an unplanned pregnancy,” Billowitz says.

And just as in Angela Rodriguez’s family, many parents don’t talk to their kids about sex.

Billowitz says in order to prevent teenage pregnancy in any group there needs to be an open dialogue at home, education in schools and access to health care.

Both Billowitz and Albert cite research that stresses the importance of talking to your kids about sex.

“Teens always remind us in survey after survey research after research it is parents – it’s not the media, it is not peers, it is not even partners – it is parents that most influence their decisions about sex,” Albert says.

That’s important to remember when 46 percent of high school students are having sex nationwide.

Angela Rodriguez says when her son Armando is old enough she’s definitely talking to him about it.

“Yeah, I’m going to talk to him about it. I’m going to be like you better not get a girl pregnant. Because it’s hard, 10 times harder than before.”