In Focus: Teenage Pregnancy in Southeast Ohio

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Chelsea Carr was just your average Athens teenager. She went to Athens High School, spent many hours with her girlfriends, and expected to attend college after graduation. But then Carr’s life changed unexpectedly.

Carr found out she was pregnant and expecting her daughter at the age of 20. Her life was turned upside down when she brought her daughter, Addison, home from the hospital.

“ I just couldn’t believe that I actually had a kid and she was going to be mine for the rest of my life. It changed my life a lot.” 

Carr is not alone, especially in rural Appalachia.  Teen births in Athens County are almost three percent higher than the state average at 12.8 percent. Nationwide, three out of every ten girls will get pregnant at least once before the age of twenty.

Basic factors that contribute to the statistics are limited sex education in high schools and lack of access to safe sex contraceptives.

Sex education in Appalachia

Steve McCollum, Athens High School Health teacher, currently teaches sexual education in two-week lessons with an underlying theme of abstinence.  McCollum says teaching sex ed is often challenging, but Athens High School used to address this ‘uncomfortable’ curriculum by outsourcing the program.

“When I first started teaching health here, we had a lady that came in and that was her job. She came from school to school and did a two week program on sex education. She was great, she was really good.

However, because of budget cutbacks, the program was cut and McCollum believes that teenage girls were the most affected.

“I think sometimes girls are more comfortable with another woman, that was the great thing about the lady that came in and taught. All the time there were girls who wanted to ask stuff after class and sometimes they wanted to ask me, but not nearly as much and I think because it’s much harder to approach a male about those types of things.”

Budget cut backs are nothing new for the southeast Ohio region. Nineteen of twenty Ohio counties with the highest poverty rates are in Appalachia. Residents living below the poverty line feel the greatest affect of unplanned pregnancies.

A recent study conducted by Ohio University’s Voinovich School discussed teen pregnancy in impoverished areas.

“Residents living below poverty are of primary interest in contraceptive and pregnancy planning initiatives, because they feel the greatest effect of unplanned pregnancies,” reported the study.

Access to contraceptives

In Athens County, there is only one Planned Parenthood that provides medical care, contraceptives and other safe sex methods to residents. 

Beth Whitted, representative of Planned Parenthood of Southeast Ohio said that the lack of other Planned Parenthood Centers in rural Appalachia is a result of low funding and low female populations.

“There isn’t an office in every county, especially if there aren’t enough people in them to make it viable. Athens, because of the student population, raises the numbers of women so we can keep a doctor busy," Whitted said.  “Planned Parenthood Federation of America is our parent organization and they make recommendations about where to locate health centers. The last time I saw (the report) they recommended having a population of about 20,000 women between ages 20 and 24.  So the idea of opening one say in Nelsonville, well there’s no way that Planned Parenthood even comes close.”

Whitted stressed the importance of sexual education but also noted that most school budgets in rural Appalachia do not provide the organization with enough funding to reach the area.

“Here in Athens we don’t have someone specifically to provide education programs in the schools and the colleges and universities, but we do have people come down from Columbus and we do have one staff member that is covering 13 counties in the state. We do a lot of just providing pamphlet information and brochures," she said.

Education post-pregnancy

One government organization tackling the problem of inaccessibility to information is Early Head Start, a part of the local Community Action program. Early Head Start sends home visitors to teenage mothers’ homes to educate their children-in hopes of boosting their success when they reach preschool.

Mary Howell, an Early Head Start home visitor in Glouster, works with nine teenage mothers in Southeast Ohio. She travels to their homes, which she said is a necessity for most of the families.

“One obstacle that I think teen moms face and a lot of people in this area is isolation. Maybe a lack of transportation, living in a very remote area can be kind of crippling to people just because they don’t have access to the things that they need, basically.”

Early Head Start reaches out to mothers dealing with isolation, but visitors like Howell do not discuss safe sex methods to avoid future pregnancies.

Teenage women in rural Appalachia face isolation, inaccessible contraceptives and low funding for sexual education. The experts say these factors may result in the higher rates of teen pregnancy for young women in Appalachia. 

Chelsea Carr is part of the statistics but always views her experience with a positive attitude, “I never thought I would be a mother this young but it happened, I would never take it back though.”

Carr is currently studying for her GED and plans to go to Hocking College for a degree in early childhood education.

“I want my daughter to be proud of her mom. I don’t want her to think I just dropped out of high school.”