Tara Grigson is an OK Policy intern. She is a psychology and Spanish major at the University of Tulsa and previously worked as a Mission Impact Intern at YWCA Tulsa.
Oklahoma ranks 2nd among all U.S. states for the highest teen birth rate. In 2014, Oklahoma’s teen birth rate was 38.5 per 1,000 teenage women, more than 1.5 times the national average of 24.2 per 1,000 teenage women. That works out to 4,802 teen births in Oklahoma in 2014.
While the largest number of teen births were to non-Hispanic white Oklahomans, the birth rate was highest for non-Hispanic black teenagers (46.9 per 1,000) and Hispanic teenagers (58 per 1,000). Oklahoma’s Hispanic teen birth rate is the highest in the country for that ethnic group (out of 49 states reporting).
Between 2011 and 2014, the United States saw a 23 percent drop in the overall teen birth rate, and Oklahoma’s rate dropped too. However, our 19 percent decline meant we fell further behind the national trend.
Why Oklahoma’s high teen birth rate is concerning
Teenage pregnancy can prevent young parents from completing their education and finding economic stability. While 89 percent of all women nationally have gotten a high school degree by age 22, only 51 percent of teenagers mothers do. Pregnancy at such a young age also can bring health risks to children. Teenage mothers are more likely to deliver babies who are premature and who have a low birth weight, risk factors for later health complications for the child. On average, teenage pregnancy costs Oklahoma taxpayers $169 million in 2010, largely going to social services to support both the mother and the child.
What’s behind Oklahoma’s high teen birth rate
We can’t place the blame for this cost entirely on young parents. If they grew up in Oklahoma, they likely never received comprehensive sex education. After all, Oklahoma’s largest school district, Oklahoma City Public Schools, provides no sex education at any grade level, and sex education programs vary widely at other large districts.
Besides a lack of sex education, limited access to contraceptives also may be contributing to our high teen birth rate. More than one-fourth of Oklahoma’s teen mothers are under 18-years-old, still legally minors. Oklahoma does not permit people under 18 to seek out contraceptive services without parental consent, with just a handful of exceptions: if the minor is enrolled in SoonerCare, is married, has a child, or is currently or has ever been pregnant.
The teen pregnancy rate is inevitably higher than the teen birth rate, because for various reasons not all women carry to term. Although Oklahoma is one of only six states that requires notarized consent from the parents of a teenager seeking an abortion, in 2012, 15 percent of the legal abortions performed in Oklahoma were performed on teenagers. This is one of the highest percentages for this age group in the country (tying for third highest with Hawaii and Montana).
What we can do to reduce Oklahoma’s teen birth rate
The national nonprofit Advocates for Youth published a list of sex education and teen pregnancy prevention programs that have measurable positive outcomes. Some programs, such as “Reducing the Risk” include education on contraception and abstinence. This program has been shown to reduce the number of teenage participants beginning to have sex by approximately 24 percent. One program, “It’s Your Game” targets black and Hispanic youth, which are Oklahoma’s two most at-risk groups with regard to teen pregnancy. It has been shown to increase the youth’s use of condoms and/or abstinence. In Tulsa’s Union Public Schools, the Carrera Program has shown to be effective in increasing knowledge of “sexual and reproductive health.” However, only one in five Union students is able to participate in the program, because it costs roughly $3,000 per student.
Given the immense cost in lost-education and lost-workforce due to teen pregnancy, it seems like comprehensive sex education ought to be a priority for Oklahoma legislators. Instead, this session, legislators passed bills like HB2797, “Humanity of the Unborn Child Act”, which would fund classes on fetal development and prenatal health care in schools but expressly forbids these lessons from including “human sexuality education.” The bill has not yet been signed by the governor. Rep. Ann Coody, who authored the bill, said, “There’s only one sure prevention of pregnancy, and that’s not to cause it in the first place.”
At the same time, HB2959 by Rep. George Young would have called on schools to offer a training session for parents and children on how to communicate about “pregnancy prevention, abstinence practices, prevention of sexually transmitted infections and diseases and safe and healthy relationships.” It was never given a committee hearing.
The bottom line
Teen pregnancy is linked to higher risk of preterm births and low birthweight babies; it is connected to lower educational outcomes and decreased employment prospects; it costs taxpayers millions of dollars in social services annually. These outcomes do not have to be Oklahoma’s future. Teen pregnancy is entirely preventable.
Comprehensive sex education, including abstinence and contraception education, is proven to lead to lower rates of teen pregnancy, as well as decreased spread of sexually transmitted infections. Funding comprehensive sex education has the potential to save the state money in the long run, with increased educational and health outcomes and decreased social service dependence.