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June 10, 2008

Officials say health education cuts may contribute to increase in pregnancies

Supporters of comprehensive sex education say cuts to funding for health education, both locally and across the state, are endangering efforts to reduce teenage pregnancy and may have some impact on the jump in pregnancies at Gloucester High School this year.

In 2003, the state, facing a fiscal crisis, stopped $25 million that had been going to the Department of Public Health and Department of Education for health education.

The money, which made up the Health Protection Fund, was available to school districts and groups providing health education that adhered to the state's educational frameworks, which include comprehensive sex education.

"What we hear from schools is not a reluctance to provide health education, but a lack of funds," Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, said yesterday. "Every school district had applied to and gotten some of that funding and none of it has been replaced."

Quinn said that with a reduction in sex education, the Alliance fears that knowledge about contraception among teens will decrease and that Massachusetts' long-declining teen pregnancy rate will rise.

School and city officials have been discussing strategies for reducing teen pregnancy since Gloucester High School reported pregnancies among students this year spiked to around four times the annual average.

Although the question of whether the high school health clinic should provide contraceptives has driven debate, officials working to formulate a comprehensive policy on the subject are considering whether changes to school health education should be part of the solution.

The high school health clinic provides pregnancy tests and some counseling. Girls that become pregnant, or express a need for more substantial reproductive services than the clinic offers, are usually referred to outside providers.

Health Quarters in Beverly is the nearest provider of confidential, low-income reproductive health services to Gloucester and one of the organizations that has lost out on state health education funding.

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