Facts of Life

CALL IT THE headline that no one wanted to read: "Number of teen pregnancies double in Hibbing," the front page of the Daily Tribune warned last month. The article blamed the statistic on the 1995 closing of the local Planned Parenthood. Located across the street from the high school, the clinic had been dispensing information and birth control for 20 years. Since its closing, Hibbing teens have had to drive the 30 miles to Grand Rapids or Virginia, Minnesota in order to get confidential, low-cost family planning services.

A little more than a year after the clinic closed, the number of new teen moms jumped from six to 12. Concerned that the numbers will continue to rise, Hibbing health and youth workers have swung into action with several pregnancy prevention programs operating within local high schools and community organizations. The problem is that the programs all focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies by scaring teens out of having sex.

Hibbing isn't the only outstate city where the family planning funding gap is being closed with this "what'll-happen-if-you-get-pregnant" approach. Indeed, the abstinence-only movement is an outgrowth of the same political realities that are cutting off public funding for Planned Parenthood and other clinics. While Minnesota statutes require that state-funded family planning programs include access to birth control, the reality is that in small cities and towns in outstate Minnesota, abstinence-based efforts--even if they're called something else--increasingly are the only kind of pregnancy-prevention that's politically palatable.

None of the programs now in place in Hibbing even offer information about birth control, much less services. The Teen Choices program brings health and social workers to schools. Speakers use an "empathy belly" to show kids what pregnancy would be like, and frequently illustrate the cost of raising children by comparing it to buying a fancy pickup truck. And word is that Baby Think it Over is on his or her way: An improvement over having teens protect raw eggs, this faux infant cries and can electronically monitor how much attention it receives.

St. Louis County envisions a future curriculum of "sexuality education," including lessons about the body's functions, issues of self-esteem, and coping skills for society's fixation with sex. Meanwhile, a new task force is looking into the Minnesota Education Now and Babies Later Project. An abstinence-based program that targets 12- to 14-year-olds, ENABL aims to "change societal norms that place social and peer pressures on teens to become sexually active." Plus, a high school survey, aimed to find out the gaps in knowledge and barriers to responsible behavior, will soon be administered.

State law says publicly funded programs must offer comprehensive services. That means that while individual programs can be abstinence-based or methods-based, each region of the state must offer several types of family planning, including birth control. When Planned Parenthood left Hibbing, the hope was that teens who needed confidential services would hunt down a car and drive to clinics in Grand Rapids or Virginia.

Currently, the Legislature is polishing a bill to increase family planning spending by 25 percent, and debating another measure that would remove the cap on funding for individual programs within each of the state's geographic regions. Right now, an individual program can only get $75,000 in state funds for use within each of Minnesota's eight regions. If the bills pass, there's a chance Hibbing could get a new clinic--if the community still wants it.

The St. Louis County Public Health Department's Jean Larson says losing the clinic was a setback, but she's not sure access to birth control is really the key issue. If birth control was the cure for teen pregnancy, she argues, they would build a new clinic. She believes the solution is figuring out "what's the best way to intervene from a community perspective."

Susan Helland, formerly a clinician at the Hibbing Planned Parenthood, says tools such as the empathy belly are fantastic. But she says they're no substitute for giving teens a private, safe place to go for information ranging from AIDS prevention to basic reproductive health.

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