The good news this week about a continuing decline in teen births in Massachusetts has to be tempered by concern about action from Washington to put severe limits on funding for women's health, and the continued foot-dragging on Beacon Hill on formal rules for sex education in public schools.
The data from 2016 for the Bay State – the most recent year available – shows the sixth straight annual decrease in the number of babies born to mothers ages 15 to 19. The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services reported the teen birth rate was 8.5 births per 1,000 girls, which is the lowest in the nation, according to reporter Christian Wade.
Massachusetts has long been setting the standard, with teen births and pregnancies declining for years, something experts attribute to birth control and sex education classes. The highest teen birth rates continue to be a handful of cities, including Lawrence (with the highest rate in the state, of 34.5 births per 1,000 girls), Lynn (sixth highest, with 29.2 births per 1,000) and Haverhill (13th highest, with 17.3 births per 1,000 girls).
Again, experts cite economic disparities, as well as ethnic and religious backgrounds, as factors behind the higher birth rates in cities. The decline in Lawrence and other cities is slower than elsewhere, likely because the schools emphasize abstinence-only sex education, according to Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
The Trump administration is pushing abstinence-only programs — long favored by the federal government, until the Obama administration. Two weeks ago, the government issued a new rule restricting abortion rights by withholding money from any facility or program that promotes abortion as an option to pregnancy or that refers patients to a doctor who will perform an abortion. The rule targets Planned Parenthood, but a major side effect limits funding for programs that support women’s health and thus limit teen pregnancy.
With the administration adopting abstinence-only as its birth control standard, it embraces the least-effective method possible. As Childs-Roshak of Planned Parenthood said, "There's a ton of research which shows that abstinence-only sexual education doesn't work."
That's not to say education about abstinence from sexual activity is wrong, but by itself it barely puts a stake in the ground on the issue of teaching teens about the risks of unprotected sex. That does a disservice to many low-income people and teenagers across the country, who risk unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease if they don't abide.
Massachusetts lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker have responded to counter actions taken in Washington when it comes to women's health. Following an executive order last year that, in effect, allowed employers to opt out of providing coverage for birth control on religious or moral grounds, the Legislature passed a bill, which Baker signed, requiring coverage without co-pays for emergency contraception and all FDA-approved birth control methods.
Beacon Hill hasn’t been quick to act on the admittedly controversial subject of sex education, however. Local school districts still decide whether to teach sex education in the first place. A bill that would require those that do to present medically correct information and cover contraception in their curriculums — as well as abstinence — has languished at the Statehouse.
Education is a proven antidote to teen pregnancy. By forcing debate on this issue to focus on abortion rights and attempts to eliminate it, the work to educate young people and prevent unwanted pregnancies will be hobbled. And if that can occur in the state with the lowest teen birth rate in the nation, the damage to sex education and access to women's health care programs in more conservative states could be disastrous.