Reducing pregnancies for teens and poor women = reduction in poverty: reductio ad absurdum?

This New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/06/science/colorados-push-against-teenage-pregnancies-is-a-startling-success.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=2  asks the following question: “If teenagers and poor women were offered free intrauterine devices and implants that prevent pregnancy for years… would those women choose them?” The answer?  A “resounding yes”, which they deem a “startling success”.

Pregnancies to teenagers and “unmarried women who had not finished high school” plunged, especially in the poorest areas of the state, allowing them time, according to the article, to “gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive job market”.  It was seen as a poverty reduction strategy.

I wish I had been a fly on the wall during the counselling sessions that led these young and poor Colorado women to choose long-acting contraceptives.  Were they fully briefed on the side effects and potential risks?  Did they discuss Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) prevention?  What was the overall vision of poverty reduction in Colorado?

During my sexual health clinic days, there were women who chose – and continued to use – Depo Provera, a contraceptive injection that lasts for three months.  They did so after I had fully informed them of potential side effects and risks of the progesterone-only method.  Some adolescents who came to the clinic were good candidates for the copper IUD and it worked very well for them.  After a clinic counselling session, when young teens or disadvantaged women opted for a method of birth control that worked for them; or they chose to end a pregnancy realizing that their circumstances would not allow them to raise a child at that time, they were making informed choices.  I recognized then as I do now, that reproductive control and poverty, while linked, are not the only elements in the equation.  After reading the article, I wondered about other measures proposed to reduce poverty in Colorado; and what will happen when the private grant to fund this experiment runs out.

Teenage pregnancy and pregnancy for low income women are complex issues.  Factors that result in unplanned pregnancies to teenagers include lower economic status, sexism, racism, prior sexual abuse and ongoing abusive relationships.  The absence of the social determinants of health can result in risk-taking behaviours, like smoking and unprotected sexual activity.  With regard to sexual abuse, for example, without the benefit of comprehensive counselling, young women run the risk of future sexual assault and abusive, controlling partners.  Some exploitative male partners will refuse to “allow” them to use contraception; or they may refuse to use condoms.  When one has little control in one’s life, reproductive control is not even on the table.

For younger and poor women, while it may not be prudent financially, emotionally or even physically to continue a pregnancy, if poverty itself were eradicated, part of the burden to the state would be eliminated, while still allowing funding to provide parenting support.

I imagine some ideological detractors of the Colorado experiment might accuse them of eugenics, deliberately limiting births to racialized and poor women.  I do not subscribe to this point of view.  However, one must acknowledge the history of eugenics practices in North America and abroad that will inevitably make some people skeptical of the motivation behind this poverty reduction experiment.

And yet, research is conflicting on the relationship between teen pregnancy and poverty.  According to Statistics Canada, “women from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to end up disadvantaged even if they delay childbearing. And while teenage childbearing continues to be a significant indicator of lower socioeconomic outcomes, the effect is smaller than originally believed” (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2008105/article/10577-eng.htm).

While I agree that delaying pregnancy is a tool towards poverty reduction, let’s be frank: only the redistribution of wealth will eradicate poverty.

The second issue in terms of the counselling process is STI prevention and treatment.  Like women who use oral contraceptives, women who use IUDs, injections (and implants in the US) may not see the need for condom use.  I would like to know if they discussed and offered testing and treatment for STIs like chlamydia, the rate of which is especially high in older adolescents and young women.  Because there are no symptoms of chlamydia in the majority of cases, without testing, women may contract Pelvic Inflammatory Disease which, if undetected over time, may lead to infertility – not a recommended form of birth control.

A Public Health map of Toronto that plots adolescent pregnancies follows the same geographical trajectory as STIs in the city, which, in turn, follows the curve representing its poorest neighbourhoods.

And who is at higher risk for poverty in Toronto?  Recent immigrants, Aboriginal people, those who are disabled, elderly and alone, racialized or children (http://www1.toronto.ca/City%20Of%20Toronto/Social%20Development,%20Finance%20&%20Administration/Strategies/Poverty%20Reduction%20Strategy/PDF/povertyinTO.pdf).

Poverty reduction, like unplanned pregnancy to young and poor women, is also complex.  There are no magic wands, but there are proven tools.  If we take the lead from developed countries where there is more economic equity, we see that a higher minimum wage and/or guaranteed income, a fair tax system where the wealthy and corporations paid their fair share and increased services, results in a profound reduction in poverty.

In the meantime, contraception and birth control, including post-coital options and abortion, should be freely available to all as a public health service.

Additional reading

The hidden epidemic: A Report on child and Family poverty in Toronto, November 2014

http://www.torontocas.ca/app/Uploads/documents/cast-report2014-final-web71.pdf

Poverty causes Teen Parenting, Not the other way around

http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/04/29/poverty-causes-teen-parenting-not-the-other-way-around

Good Practices in Anti-poverty Family-focused Policies and Programmes in Developed Countries

http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/family/docs/egm12/PAPER-RICHARDSON.pdf

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Adolescent sexuality: Out of hand? – April 25, 2013

Actually, it seems to be in their hands. Handheld devices give teenagers access to sexual images—including unsolicited images of their peers—as well as anything they could possibly want to know about sex, both positive and negative. The unsolicited photos are an obvious negative, but some of the positives are that they can find a clinic, text a health agency for information, even let a partner know anonymously that they have an STI and need to get tested. With the increase in information from all sources, there have been some real advances in sexual health for adolescents and young adults; but there are still serious problems. So what are they really up to? Media messages mislead adults about adolescent sexual activity, giving the impression that they are having sex at increasingly younger ages. Federal and provincial health surveys seem to tell a different story. In 1996, 32 per cent of 15- to 17-year-olds reported that they had had (vaginal) intercourse; in 2003 and 2009, it was 30 per cent. Moreover, for 18- to 19-year-olds, fewer are reporting having had intercourse than previously. In 1996, it was 70 per cent; in 2009, it dropped to 68 per cent. Condom use is also increasing. Sixty-eight per cent of sexually active Canadians aged 15 to 24 reported using condoms in 2009-2010, compared to 62 per cent in 2003. However, older teenagers are less consistent in their condom use: for 18- to 19-year-olds (with one partner), 72.7 per cent used condoms the last time they had sex as compared to 81.2 per cent of 15- to 17-year-olds. The likely reason for the heterosexual teenagers is that the young women are on the Pill. Like deciding to postpone sex, condom use requires negotiation. In certain social groups, condoms are de rigueur. When I worked in a sexual health clinic, I noticed that there were some young people who were more sophisticated than many adults I know in terms of their ability to make sexual decisions. For example, young men were coming in with their female partners for testing, a great new twist on a date. The rates for adolescent pregnancy have plunged dramatically since the 1970s, with the increase in comprehensive sexual health education and access to birth control and safe abortion as back-up. The remaining pockets of adolescent pregnancy are still to be addressed by increased access to the basics: adequate food, shelter and safety, including sexual safety. Another positive: adolescents are coming out to themselves at younger and younger ages about their sexual orientation and/or gender issues. So we’re getting some things right by changing the discourse at home and school to ensure that they hear lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans (LGBT) positive messages. But we still need to up our game. The older adolescents who are no longer using condoms may not be getting pregnant, but they are getting STIs in record numbers. The number of cases of Chlamydia for 15- to 24-year-olds, for example, continues to rise. This is in part due to more, and better, testing.  (Urine tests for males as opposed to swabs make it a lot easier to convince them to go.) As mentioned, heterosexual teenage girls and young women in longer term relationships (three weeks or more!) are starting to use hormonal contraception, such as the Pill, as their method of birth control. But they tend to start the Pill before they get tested for STIs. As soon as they go on the Pill, they stop using condoms. They may be unaware that they were already infected with an STI from a previous partner, or they may get infected by their steady, loving partner, who was himself unaware that he was infected. To my mind, the most dramatic barrier to adolescent sexual health, as I reported in an earlier blog is the persistence of acquaintance rape and the apparent lack of empathy for its victims. Right alongside this phenomenon is intimate partner violence—emotional, physical and sexual abuse—that often starts in adolescence and persists into young adulthood, with the overwhelming majority of victims of intimate partner violence being female. While I fully acknowledge that each one of these problems has many factors, including high-risk behaviors linked to economic and social disadvantages, education remains a key factor. With increased education and access to services, we will be able to keep pushing down the stats on STIs and teenage pregnancy; but it will take some phone smarts to turn those handheld devices to our advantage. Agents for change will have to learn to blast positive messages to each and every one of them. I propose a new Twitter tag: #goodteensex.