Commentary: Keep politics out of effective teen pregnancy prevention

Despite immense gains made in teen pregnancy prevention across the country in recent years, a baby is still born to a teen mom every 18 minutes in Texas. While young mothers can thrive, we know the odds are stacked against them. Research shows that teen parents are more likely to drop out of high school and live in poverty compared to their peers who delay childbearing by even a few years. The obstacles are multigenerational, as children of teen parents are more likely to enter the child welfare system, struggle in school and become teen parents themselves.

Given those facts, we need to be working hard to provide adolescents with the information and tools they need to delay pregnancy. Instead, the federal government is making those resources harder to get.

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Last July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services abruptly notified grantees of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) that grants would be terminated at the end of the 2018 federal fiscal year, two full years before the projects were due to end. Founded in 2010, the TPPP is a national, evidence-based program that funds diverse organizations working to prevent teen pregnancy across the United States. In Texas, these programs serve thousands of youth, including our most vulnerable populations such as youth in foster care, pregnant and parenting youth, and adjudicated youth. Presidential budget proposals continue to zero out TPPP, though the Senate is fighting to keep it funded.

Last month, a group of nine health care, local government and oversight organizations filed federal lawsuits against the Trump administration for unlawfully ending TPPP grant agreements.

To effectively address the issue of teen pregnancy, we need to continue investing in programs that show effectiveness and cost savings. Instead, the president’s proposed budget steers hundreds of millions of dollars to abstinence-only education, referred to as “sexual risk avoidance” programs. However, a preponderance of evidence shows that, no matter what you call it, abstinence-only education hurts kids and doesn’t make them any less likely to have sex; it just makes them less likely to use contraception when they do.

Additionally, Title X clinics, which provide essential health services to 30,000 adolescents in Texas, also are under attack. Several months overdue, the federal government finally released a funding opportunity for Title X clinics last week. References to effective contraception have been replaced with a focus on natural family planning and abstinence education. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists say the new Title X guidelines “reflect the Trump administration’s continued move away from scientific, evidence-based policies and toward unscientific ideologies.”

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Jettisoning evidence-based, effective services is a shortsighted move that could reverse the immense gains we’ve made in recent years. The 2015 teen birth rate in Texas dropped to a historic low of 33 per 1000, down from a high of 78.4 per 1,000 in 1991. This tremendous progress means there were 43,400 fewer teen births in Texas in 2015 than there would have been if the teen birth rate had remained at the 1991 rate, according to a recent analysis by Power to Decide. That translates to a public cost savings of $418 million for Texas in 2015, due to lower costs for health care, assistance and other public benefits associated with supporting young moms. Nationwide, the savings associated with the reduction in teen birth rates from the 1991 peak was $4.4 billion in 2015.

The dramatically declining teen birth rate is a tremendous public health victory, but we still have a long way to go. Left unchecked, this administration’s new strategy will ultimately reverse the immense gains we’ve made in teen pregnancy prevention in recent years.

Congress is still working to finalize the Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations, which means TPPP still has a shot. If you believe that kids deserve age-appropriate, medically accurate information to make better informed decisions, call your congressional representatives and ask them to support the Senate Appropriations Committee’s funding level of $101 million in the final appropriations bill.

We know that programs such as this are a good investment, even if they get caught up in bad politics.

Clayton is the interim CEO of Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

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