Editorial: Teens and prenatal care

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Bristol Palin, the daughter of Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, finds herself in far different circumstances than many of the 435,000 teenagers who get pregnant in the United States each year. They’re nameless statistics. Her pregnancy made national headlines and has sparked a debate about what, if any, relevance this has to her mother’s candidacy.
But that’s not the most important difference. Unlike many of those other teens, Palin enjoys the benefits of an intact and, by all accounts, loving and supportive family. And regardless of whether her baby comes home to the White House or the Alaskan State House, rest assured she will enjoy the best of health care both before her baby’s birth and afterward, thanks to her family’s involvement ó and their health insurance.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many teen mothers in Rowan County and across the country. Pregnant teens aged 15 to 19 are far less likely to get adequate prenatal care than older expectant mothers, health experts say, and they’re also more likely to smoke. According to federal statistics, about 84 percent of all expectant mothers seek pre-natal care in the first trimester. (The figures for Rowan County are comparable, with about 80 percent of expectant women seeking early pre-natal care.
But for teens, the number plummets. Nationally, only about 64 percent of pregnant teens younger than 18 get prenatal care ó which means more than a third are putting themselves and their unborn infants at higher risk for health problems. In addition to health complications associated with low birth weight and poor nutrition, the children of teen mothers are more likely to end up living in poverty, not do well in school and become unwed teen mothers themselves.
What makes this health-care issue even more urgent is that, after several years of decline, the teenage pregnancy rate may be on the rise. In 2006, the overall U.S. live birth rate for 15- to 19-year-olds was 41.9 per 1,000 women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ó up from 40.5 in 2005. In Rowan County, the 2006 rate for 15-19-year-olds was 72.5 live births per 1,000 women, compared to 63.1 for the state as a whole.
Unfortunately, this comes as many state and community agencies face budget restrictions that may reduce teens’ access to prenatal care and counseling. Locally, health officials have emphasized prenatal and neonatal care through the County Health Department, the Department of Social Services, the school system and non-profit agencies such as N.C. Healthy Start. Information about the importance of a healthy diet, exercise and appropriate weight gain is available, but many teens don’t seek medical advice ó or don’t seek it early enough. We can ó and will ó endlessly debate the merits of sex education programs vs. abstinence-only initiatives, without any resolution or meeting of the minds. Surely, however, we can agree that all pregnant teens should have access to quality health care both before their baby is born, and afterward. Bristol Palin will get that care, but many other pregnant teenagers won’t.