National Partnership for Women & Families

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Calif. teenage birth rate down; rate higher than average in Central San Joaquin Valley

California's teenage birth rate has fallen to a historic low, but regional disparities remain, according to a report released last week by the state Department of Public Health, the Fresno Bee/Merced Sun Star reports.

Teenage birth rate down in Calif.

The report found that in 2014, there were 20.8 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in California. The 2014 rate marks a decrease of 10 percent from 2013 and 55 percent from 2000, when there were 46.7 births per 1,000 adolescent women.

Further, the report noted that the California teenage birth rate declined among all racial and ethnic groups between 2000 and 2014. The birth rate fell from 77.3 to 31.3 per 1,000 among Hispanic adolescents; 59.1 to 24.6 per 1,000 among black adolescents; 22.3 to 8.4 per 1,000 among white adolescents; and 15.0 to 3.7 per 1,000 among Asian adolescents.

State officials in the report attributed the declining birth rate to no-cost family planning services and pregnancy prevention programs.

Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California, said the state is leading the country in a nationwide decline in unintended pregnancy among adolescents. She noted that in addition to programs that provide contraception, the state also supports comprehensive sexuality education. At the start of this year, a state law took effect that requires school districts to provide "comprehensive, accurate and unbiased" sexuality education to students at least twice between seventh and twelfth grade.

Karen Smith, California's public health officer, discussed the state's success in curbing the adolescent birth rate, stating, "We can have a positive influence on the lives of young people when we empower them with knowledge, tools and resources to make healthy choices."

Rate higher than average in the central San Joaquin Valley

The report also highlighted regional variation in the teenage birth rate.

According to the report, many counties in the central San Joaquin Valley reported teenage birth rates higher than the state's average. For example, Kern County had the highest teenage birth rate in the state, at 45.1 per 1,000 adolescent women. Tulare County had the third-highest rate in the state, at 43.7 per 1,000, followed by Madera County, at 43. Fresno, Kings and Merced counties had the fifth, sixth and seventh-highest rates, respectively, at 39.1, 38.9 and 36.2 per 1,000 adolescent women. Stanislaus County reported a rate of 30.2 per 1,000 adolescent women.

While the rates remain higher than average in the Valley, counties have seen declines in recent years. For instance, Merced's rate, for the aggregate years of 2012 to 2014 was 36.2 per 1,000, down from 39.1 per 1,000 for 2011 to 2013.

Discussing the overall higher teenage birth rates in the Valley, Burlingame pointed to the region's high need for reproductive health services.

Separately, Emily Bernard, director of Before and After Baby in Merced, said, "It's an access-to-care issue ... We are a very [low-income] county, economically speaking, and we don't have enough providers, whether it be for birth control or birth." She added, "Our clinics are completely overwhelmed."

Further, officials cited the role that education, poverty, unemployment and other socioeconomic factors play in the teenage birth rate. Gilda Zarate-Gonzalez, deputy public health director of the Madera County Public Health Department, said, "If we don't address all those socio-economic factors, we're never really going to gain significant traction to dramatically reduce those numbers."

Zarate-Gonzalez added, "The lack of community resources [in the Valley] makes it all the more important that young people be able to access quality, school-based sex education."

Separately, Pedro Elias, regional director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood, said, "It's challenging for folks [in rural areas] to get from point A to point B," adding, "We're significantly different in comparison to places like the Bay Area or Los Angeles." Bernard noted that travel barriers can keep teenagers from accessing contraception or learning more about family planning, particularly when they cannot discuss sexuality education with their parents.

Elias said Planned Parenthood provides sexuality education advice for parents and that parents can bring children with them to centers to learn as well. "In order to continue to keep birth rates lower, we need education on prevention," he said (Anderson/Velez, Fresno Bee/Merced Sun Star, 8/17).