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  • Laura Stepp: A view of an untroubled rural America is out of date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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT