There was a great deal of controversy a few years ago when the Las Cruces Public Schools board decided to add health centers with access to contraceptives at district high schools.
It was feared that the centers would send the wrong message about underage-sex and exacerbate an already vexing problem of teenage pregnancy. In fact, they have contributed to a significant decline in the number of teenage girls in Doña Ana County giving birth.
It was reported recently that the teen birth rate in Doña Ana County has declined by 26 percent in the past year, and is now on par with the rate for the state at large. While there is still room for improvement, that statistic reflects enormous progress, and much of the credit must go to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Work Group, which has been working since 2005 to bring that rate down.
Earl Nissen, chairman of that group, credited much of the improvements to changes made in the public schools. In Las Cruces schools, the school board voted in 2007 to replace an abstinence-only approach with comprehensive sex education. An initiative by then-Gov. Bill Richardson established school-based health centers throughout the state. And, in 2010, the Legislature made health education a requirement for graduation.
Every high school in the county except Hatch now has a school-based health center, Nissen said. The centers are each operated by either the state Department of Health or a local provider such as La Clinica de Familia or the Ben Archer Health Center. Along with basic medical care, they also provide behavioral health care. And about two-thirds of the 60 clinics throughout the state offer access to contraceptives.
None of these new initiatives absolves parents of their primary role in guiding and directing their children on this sensitive issue. But on issues of human biology and sexuality, many teens have questions that parents aren’t able to answer. That’s why programs like the state’s “Birds and Bees” campaign has a line set up just for parents where they can get answers to their questions within 24 hours.
The costs of teenage pregnancy are draining for the community, and can be devastating for the individuals.
“There are a lot of reasons why reducing teen pregnancy is good economically and societally,” said Susan Lovett, program manager for the state Health Department’s Family Planning Program. “In general, we want teens to continue their education to achieve their life goals. We do encourage teens when they come into health offices to think about a reproductive life plan. Where does having a pregnancy fit into their life goals? And what do they need to do, if they’re not ready to be pregnant, to prevent pregnancy so they can achieve their life goals?”
That message is clearly starting to be heard, but just getting to the statewide average isn’t enough. We need to continue on the progress that has been made.