Skip to main content

Rural America has a teen pregnancy problem

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
updated 6:59 AM EST, Wed February 27, 2013
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  • Laura Stepp: A view of an untroubled rural America is out of date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
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT