Sheila Ashley considers herself to have a very good relationship with her 14-year-old daughter and her three older children.
But, she added, “I know teenagers will talk to each other about things and in ways that they would not with their parents.” During a conversation this week at Planned Parenthood’s health center in Fayetteville, Ashley said all of her children, two boys and two girls, have participated in Planned Parenthood’s education programs aimed at delaying teen sex, preventing teen pregnancies and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases.
Ashley, who participates in the programs with her children, says she is very happy with Planned Parenthood’s efforts. Her eldest is now 25, she said, and among her children there have been “no teen pregnancies, no STDs.” Ashley said she is very much aware of the damage of teen pregnancies in her community and the pressures young people face, and she never took for granted that her children weren’t vulnerable.
“I am very satisfied,” she said, with the support she has received from Planned Parenthood.
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She will no longer receive support from the state of North Carolina, however.
The state budget, approved by the legislature last week and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, includes a provision that banned giving new state funds or renewing contracts to groups that provide family planning and pregnancy prevention if those groups also provide abortions. The provision was inserted in the budget at the last minute and became law without debate. At the time, no lawmaker took credit for the budget provision, but Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican, sponsored a bill that would make the two-year budget provision permanent.
Although not mentioned by name, the move is clearly aimed at Planned Parenthood and affects about $135,000 in state funds for the group’s teen pregnancy prevention initiative in Fayetteville, as well as the adolescent parenting program in Wilmington that has a good track record for preventing repeat pregnancies among teen parents and helping them graduate high school.
The move by North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature is in keeping with the political right’s determination to defund Planned Parenthood at any cost because the group’s services include providing legal abortions. In Washington, some Republicans are threatening another government shutdown to force a federal defunding of Planned Parenthood. They say a series of videos show that Planned Parenthood profits by selling fetal tissue from abortions in violation of federal law. Planned Parenthood says the charge is inaccurate and that it is based on heavily edited videos and inaccurate reports of what the videos show.
Planned Parenthood is already prohibited by law from using federal funds for abortions. At risk are federal reimbursements for Planned Parenthood health services that are essential to many low-income women, including pap smears and mammograms. But undermining Planned Parenthood may also increase abortions, because of the group’s leading role in preventing unwanted pregnancies among girls and women.
Planned Parenthood has been in the cross hairs of political conservatives for a long time.
North Carolina’s programs became a target as soon as Republicans gained control of the legislature in 2011, said Paige Johnson, a senior vice president for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. Planned Parenthood then beat back in court efforts to cut its state funding, but “saw the handwriting on wall,” Johnston said and got direct funding from the federal government for pregnancy prevention programs. “The only money from the state was for the two adolescent programs,” she said.
There was no explanation for the budget provision, and the legislature didn’t follow its own rules about inserting items that had not been previously part of the budget in the process of reconciling differences, she said. “Clearly, they don’t follow their own rules,” she said.
The legislature’s retaliation against Planned Parenthood comes at at time when the state is making some progress in bringing down a high teen pregnancy rate. In 2013, the birth rate for females between 15 and 19 was 28.4 per 1,000 females. The rate was less than half what it was in 1990, but North Carolina clearly needs to do more to bring the rate down further.
North Carolina looks good compared to a majority of Southern states. (Florida had the lowest rate in the South at 24.6.) But the North Carolina rate is still above the national average of 26.4 per 1,000. The national figure is in itself dismal compared to the rest of the industrialized world. By comparison, Canada’s teen birthrate is 14.2 per 1,000 females.
Historically, the United States has done a poor job providing sex education for young people.
As much as conservatives would like to emphasize Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, the organization plays a significant role in preventing abortions through its education and contraceptive services. Making long-acting reversible contraceptives, such as implants, more widely available has played a key role in bringing down the teen birth rate, Johnson said.
But Planned Parenthood’s programs seek to address the problem by going far beyond handing out birth control and telling teenagers not to have sex.
Monika Simmons-Thigpen, a senior director of education for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, explains the organization’s multifaceted approach to teen pregnancy prevention. “All of our programs are state-approved curriculum and are evidence-based,” she said. The program recruits broadly for a diverse group of participants, she says, because all groups are vulnerable to the risk of premature teen sexual activity.
It has a “smart girls” curriculum that helps middle-school girls build self esteem and to make healthy decisions about relationships and dating. A “wise guys” program recognizes boys’ role in teen pregnancies and guides them toward making responsible decisions about sex. Another important component of the teen programs, Simmons-Thigpen said, is training youths to become “peer educators” about sex and disease prevention.
Participants in the teen program are also encouraged to remain active in the program as alumni and to become engaged in their communities as volunteers in other areas, she said.
“Parents matter,” in the teen programs, Simmons-Thigpen said. “We want to help them keep the lines of communication open with their children to talk about dating and such things as sexting. Parent involvement is very important to us,” she said, explaining that the program has mother-daughter events and “man-up” events that bring together fathers and sons and expose boys without fathers to men who they can interact with.
The program even has family game nights with “old school” games, meaning no electronics, to foster parent-child communication.
“We’re vested in these programs. We have a passion for our programs,” Simmons-Thigpen said, because they work.
Planned Parenthood won repeated funding for its teen programs, Johnston said, because it could prove that they worked. She said she believes Planned Parenthood supporters are also vested in the programs and that someone will step forward to replace the lost state funding.