Skip to main content

Rural America has a teen pregnancy problem

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
February 27, 2013 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Teen moms attend a program to help them stay in school. Laura Stepp says rural teens have less access to health clinics.
Teen moms attend a program to help them stay in school. Laura Stepp says rural teens have less access to health clinics.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Laura Stepp: A view of an untroubled rural America is out of date
  • Study shows teen girls have babies at rates a third higher than girls in cities or suburbs
  • Stepp: They're higher because rural teens have less access to health clinics, counseling
  • Cities have lowered teen birth rates with education and access to contraception, she says

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is senior media fellow at the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence."

(CNN) -- We have a rosy view of rural America as a place where people wave even if they don't know you, and life isn't affected by what we think of as city problems. So it might come as a surprise that teenage girls 15 to 19 years old in rural counties have babies at rates that are nearly one third higher than girls in the cities and suburbs.

Several major cities are succeeding in lowering teenage birth rates. In New York City, for example, teen pregnancy declined 27% between 2001 and 2010, according to data from the New York City Health Department. It's time for more notice to be paid to teens in rural America.

A study recently released by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy showed that the birth rate of girls in rural counties in 2010 -- the latest available data -- was almost 33% higher than in the rest of the country. It's not for the reasons many people might think, according to my colleague, Kelleen Kaye, senior research director at The National Campaign.

Laura Stepp
Laura Stepp

What's not true, she says, according to an analysis of federal data, is what we often hear: Rural teens are more likely than other teens to have sex with older men, or at younger ages, or get married younger. What is true is that they lack health clinics that are easily accessible and that offer contraception as well as counseling. Their parents may not have health insurance that makes birth control affordable. Abortion providers may be hard to find.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"Teens in general are more similar than they are different, but their resources may be different," says Kaye, who grew up in a small town in Iowa.

Amen to that. Sixteen years ago, researching a book I was writing about young teens, I spent a year traveling to and from three jurisdictions including Ulysses, Kansas, a town of slightly more than 6,000 in the southwestern part of the state. That year, the teen pregnancy rate in rural Grant County, where Ulysses is located, jumped from eighth highest in the state to second. In a high school of about 500, 25 girls were either pregnant or recently had had a baby; at least two middle school girls were also pregnant.

One girl I was writing about, ninth-grader Amanda Pena, introduced me to several high school friends who were either pregnant or already mothers. Amanda, being raised by her Catholic grandparents after her mother abandoned her, was determined to avoid pregnancy and become the first in her family to get a college degree. She was a very bright young woman and I believed at the time she would achieve that.

I caught up with her recently to see how she was doing.

She told me she did, in fact, get pregnant her senior year in high school. So did several other girls she knew.

They had had some sex education in school, she said, but mostly, they just joked about sex. Her grandparents never talked to her about contraception, and when she got pregnant, "It really changed my relationship to everyone in the family." Her pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and after graduation she headed off to Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

In her third year at Kansas State, she got pregnant again and decided against having an abortion. The father of her child refused to marry her even after little Braeden was born.

For a while, she tried being a single mom and continuing classes at Kansas State. She drew welfare payments while hoping Braeden's father would contribute child support. He didn't, and eventually "I just burned out," she recalled. She left Kansas State with only nine classes left before she could graduate. She eventually settled in Overland Park, Kansas, where she works as a supervisor at a heating and plumbing company and lives with Matt Kresyman, her new husband, and Braeden. who's 9.

"I lost my goals of getting a four-year college degree and moving up the ladder like everyone else wants to do," she said.

Amanda said when she goes back to Ulysses to see her family and friends, she listens to the list of babies recently born to single parents and realizes that attitudes about teen pregnancy there haven't changed much. Boys are reluctant to buy condoms at the drugstore, and girls dislike visiting a physician to pick up a prescription for birth control. Both give the same reason: In their small town, "they are afraid everyone will find out." She also hears something else among these teenagers as well as the adults, a kind of "what will happen, will happen" resignation.

Americans know that attitude when applied to teen pregnancy. We heard it not that long ago in the big cities of this country. But some of those cities, like New York City, are beginning to prove that with the right approach to education and contraception, and enough money, the teen pregnancy rate can come down.

It's time for this country to apply and adapt, where necessary, what it has learned to rural America.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Laura Stepp.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT