Why Do More Latina Teens Get Pregnant?

U.S. teen pregnancies have declined for years, but Latinas still have the highest rate. Health expert Jane Delgado explains, along with teacher and former teen mother Christina Martinez.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. There has been a lot of progress in reducing the number of teen pregnancies over the last few decades. Rates have declined across all ethnic groups. But according to new figures from the Centers for Disease Control, the teen birthrate among Hispanics is stubbornly high.

Joining us to talk about what's behind these numbers are Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, and also joining me, Christina Martinez, a Head Start teacher in Sacramento, CA who had her first child at the age of 17. Jane and Christina, welcome.

JANE DELGADO: So glad to be here with you today.

CHRISTINA MARTINEZ: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: There's a couple basics we want to make sure we get clear from the very beginning. Number one, when we talk about preventing teen pregnancy, we're not talking about just girls, right. We're talking about boys as well.

The other thing is we don't want to under emphasize the significant progress that we've made in cutting down on teen pregnancies among all groups. But, Jane, why do we consistently seem to see Latinas having the highest rate of teen births?

DELGADO: I think there's lots going on with Hispanic girls. You know, at the same time that we see a lot of teen pregnancy among Hispanic girls, we also know Hispanic teens are the group most likely to attempt suicide.

So there's a lot of self-esteem issues that are going on here. And something that people don't talk about but is key is that we know for Hispanic and African-American girls, they're reaching puberty younger and younger. So there's a lot...

HEADLEE: Biologically.

DELGADO: Biologically. So that there is a lot going on with their bodies. And with the messages that people get from society, that may not be helpful.

HEADLEE: So, Christina, let's take you back to when your child was born at the age of 17. What kind of messages did you get? What kind of discussions do you have with either teachers or family members about teen pregnancy?

MARTINEZ: Well, as far as teachers went, there was very little discussion. I think I can remember having one sex education class, if you will. And that was in fifth grade - so way before the onset of puberty, for me, anyway - and that was it. So the conversation in school was pretty much null.

At home, my mom was very open. You know, if we were - my sisters and I were curious about anything, she would have books for us. She would be willing to take us to see our family practitioner if we needed birth control. So that was an ongoing conversation.

HEADLEE: We often think of - among the Latino community, people often say, well, that's part of the culture is a religious, a strong religious background, and very often it includes starting a family early. How much did that play into your - the birth of your child?

MARTINEZ: I don't think that we were getting messages so much that were encouraging us to start families early. There's definitely the values of Catholicism that we were raised with by our grandparents.

And so when it came time to make a decision in terms of carrying on with the pregnancy or having an abortion, that definitely played a role in my decision to continue with the pregnancy. But we were encouraged to continue our education, to go with higher ed.

HEADLEE: Well, Jane, what exactly do you find in terms of the difference between the message? I mean, obviously, many of these kids must be attending the same classrooms, right? Are they getting the same message from teachers and then at home?

DELGADO: Well, I think what happens in the Hispanic families that we value children. So if we're - so if a young woman becomes pregnant, we may not be thrilled about it, but, you know, we will support her in her pregnancy.

And this is a very difficult time for these young women. So having that support is something that is good. You know, I think that the important thing is that last year the Hispanic birthrate had the largest decline among teens than we've had in years - 11 percent.

HEADLEE: In these new numbers from the CDC.

DELGADO: Yes.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

DELGADO: So that's a good thing. So more and more people are getting the message. And not just girls, the message has to be for boys 'cause we also know that often the boys are five years older, on the average, than the girls. So it's a message that has to go out to girls and boys.

MARCOS

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the teen birthrate, especially among Latinas. Our guests are Jane Delgado - who you just heard - from the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. And Christina Martinez, a Head Start teacher who had her first child at the age of 17.

And - well, let's dive a little bit more into why we want to prevent teen pregnancy. I know May is Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. So what are the outcomes very often or why is it so important to prevent girls from having babies while they're still either in high school or in their teen years? Jane?

DELGADO: I think the most obvious reason is it prevents the girls from reaching their full capacity. You know, girls don't do as well. Their incomes don't rise as much.

They really can't do the things that they would like to do if they didn't have to care for a child 'cause these young women also take caring for their children very seriously. So I think that's one thing. Also, health-wise, it's not good to be bearing children so young.

HEADLEE: Well, Christina, this didn't end up being your experience, right? You kind of bucked the statistics here. What happened with yours - with your pregnancy and how did that affect your life?

MARTINEZ: Well, I was kind of on a fast track to nowhere before the birth of my son, and I really look at it that he provided me the inspiration to kind of push myself further because at that point when I got pregnant with him during my sophomore year, my grades and attendance at school were dismal. I just wasn't focused.

And once he was born, it gave me that responsibility that, you know, I need to get it together and, you know, provide him with a legacy that he can be proud of. So I went on and got my BA in child development and my Master's degree in early childhood education, and have kind of just really pushed the message of higher education for him. And he will be applying for colleges next year. He's doing wonderful in school, and that was the experience that I had.

HEADLEE: So have you - I mean, what do you think your reaction might be - he's 17 now, right?

MARTINEZ: Right.

HEADLEE: The same age that you had him? And if he were to come home and say mom, I got a girl pregnant?

MARTINEZ: I've given that a lot of thought because obviously it's always a possibility once a child is sexually active. I've had a discussion with him frequently and early on about ways that - pardon me - that he can, you know, protect himself and also having the discussion with the young women that he may be involved with.

I've also been very diligent about keeping him involved in afterschool activities. Thankfully, my job is such that I'm home by 330 in the afternoon. So there isn't that lapsed time where he's just kind of hanging out unsupervised.

But if it were to come up, then I would have to do the same that my parents did for me, which is just provide him with all of the support that he, you know, needs and that the young woman would need so that they can be successful. And hopefully their child would be successful as well.

HEADLEE: And, Jane, obviously Christina is an anomaly to a certain extent. The statistics generally aren't as good for girls that have babies when they're in their teenage years, right? That's what you were just mentioning?

DELGADO: Yes, that's what is so - that's why you have to look beyond the numbers in each situation because what forms that young woman and that young man's decisions, they vary from situation to situation.

And in one case, it can be something that motivates someone, in another case it may be something that is not thought of in a positive way. And that's why I get very concerned when there are these blanket statistics because they give you like a frame, but the details of the picture you have to look at each situation.

HEADLEE: But, Christina, do you agree with the effort to reduce to pregnancies? Is that something you support?

MARTINEZ: Of course.

HEADLEE: So where do you think - Christina, where are we maybe missing the boat with reaching Latinas? Is it at the home? Is it in church? Is it at school? Where could we perhaps improve that message?

MARTINEZ: Well, I think it's a combination of all that you just mentioned. I think that it's essential that we address the academic, the socioeconomic and sexual health challenges that many of our Latino youth are facing. And we need to really be diligent about enacting integrative policies that are going to address these issues holistically.

So how can we help parents and support them in having those conversations around sexual health with their children because a lot of times, maybe they want to talk with them, but they are not sure how to approach the subject. How can we better equip teachers and counselors and administrators to deal with their increasingly diverse student body?

There's just so many ways that we need to go about this, but also keeping in mind that, you know, the poverty cycle - I know that it's often said that teen pregnancy is a cause of poverty. But I'm thinking this is something that's existing before the pregnancy in many cases. And so that's something that we need to go to the root of. It's not enough to say that if we are to reduce teen pregnancy rates that it's going to solve that issue of poverty among Latinos.

HEADLEE: Jane, I wanted you - to get you to respond to what Christina just said in terms of how we can - where we can most effectively improve the message to prevent teen pregnancies among the Hispanic community?

DELGADO: I think the message has to be given from many different people in many different ways. One of the things people always want is the magic bullet, the silver bullet - the one program that's going to prevent teen pregnancy. And you can't have one program because each girl is going to be very different and each boy.

Someone said to me, you know, have a dance program for young girls after school so they have something to go to and do. You need afterschool programs for girls who are 10 to 15 because usually at that age, there are very few activities, and for boys, too.

So I think you have to have an array of programs and activities and redundancy. Just because you say something once, doesn't mean someone is going to get the message. You have to repeat it. It has to be part of our society. You know, it concerns me how we sexualize young girls and then get surprised when they get pregnant.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. She joined me right here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And Christina Martinez is a Head Start teacher in Sacramento, CA, also the mother of four children. Thank you both.

MARTINEZ: Thank you.

DELGADO: Thank you.

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