North Dakota Has Teen Pregnancy Crisis Yet Conservatives Block Sex Education Federal Grant

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Last September, Molly Secor-Turner got some exciting news. Along with another North Dakota State University researcher, Brandy Randall, she won a 1.2-million federal grant to launch a sex education program in Fargo for at-risk teens.

Despite its emphasis on abstinence education, teen pregnancy is a major problem in North Dakota. There isn’t a single health clinic for adolescents in the state. Between 1991 and 2008, about 13,000 teenagers gave birth, costing taxpayers a total of $300 million.

Two-thirds of high school teens are sexually active, and one in four girls has a sexually transmitted infection. For kids who are homeless, in foster care, or in juvenile detention facilities, the rates of teen pregnancy and STDs are even higher.

For Secor-Turner, a nurse who grew up in North Dakota and returned a few years ago to raise her three children, these were the kind of poor, neglected teens she was dying to reach.

“Here’s a group of youth who are already disenfranchised and at a disadvantage in our society, and certainly in our state, where they don’t have the ability to access health and reproductive services, they probably don’t go to health providers,” she told me in a phone interview. “For me, this was a chance to be an advocate for these youth and make a difference.”

The three-year program, called “Making Proud Choices,” wasn’t just about giving teens accurate information about pregnancy, contraception and how sexual diseases are spread. Though it did dispel myths among teens such as if you pee after sex you won’t get pregnant. It was also about how to make good decisions and set goals, something most of these teens have little life experience with. To help run the program, a teacher and a nurse specializing in adolescent health had been hired. The program also had a strong evaluation component.

But in mid-January, just as she and Randall, an associate professor of human development and family science, were working with agencies to recruit the kids, something they couldn’t possibly have imagined occurred. Dean L. Brescani, the president of NDSU, announced that he was freezing their grant—and did it on a
conservative radio talk show.

Why? Because Planned Parenthood was involved.

Not surprisingly, the North Dakota Catholic Conference hailed NDSU for making “the right decision.”

When Secor-Turner heard that the grant was in jeopardy, she was stunned. “As far as I know,” she told me in a phone interview, “nothing like this has ever happened. Most people are pretty outraged. My colleagues are adolescent health colleagues. They’re alarmed that this is happening, when what has the potential to make a difference in the lives of adolescents to make healthy transitions to adulthood…they can’t believe this is the response.”

This was Secor-Turner’s first time speaking to a reporter about the controversy. Because it reflects the continuing battle over women’s health and reproductive rights, the story has drawn national attention. Though she didn’t want to get into the politics because the decision could be reversed, she was happy to talk with me about the program and the teens it’s designed to serve.

“It’s a pretty bleak picture for adolescents in terms of accessing sexual health and reproductive services,” she said. “We have a very rural state. We have more metropolitan areas, but in the rest of the state, just geographic position and distance make it difficult for adolescents to access sexual health services. Coupled with the social climate that is very conservative, there’s a lot of push from the loudest voice in our state, which is an abstinence-only social position.”

What really struck me was when she said this: “Our laws are not very friendly to women, but particularly to adolescents.”

Right now, North Dakota is considering an unprecedented four anti-abortion measures, including a personhood amendment and a heartbeat ban,which would outlaw abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected.

I read just this moment that North Dakota’s state senate passed two of those bills on Thursday, including a personhood amendment and another measure that would threaten the state’s one abortion clinic.

It’s in this hostile climate that Turner-Secor and Randall wanted to impart science-based knowledge about sex, pregnancy, and making good decisions to vulnerable teens.

The president of NDSU never spoke with the researchers about the grant. He never went to Planned Parenthood’s office in Fargo. When the state did a legal analysis of the grant, it found no conflict of interest with NDSU partnering with Planned Parenthood. But when a few anti-abortion legislators got wind of that the Fargo office was going to provide services, that was all it took. They immediately tried to shut the grant down.

One of them, Rep. Bette Grande, fumed on a local radio talk show:

When I see something that says this is Planned Parenthood–they’re not even a part of the state of North Dakota. They don’t serve anyone in North Dakota, and they shouldn’t be a part of North Dakota. They’re not a part of how we do business in this state. It is an overt abortion industry that we don’t want to be a part of.

There are several problems with Grande’s statement. First off, Planned Parenthood’s office in Fargo doesn’t do abortions and isn’t even a health clinic. It provides advocacy, education and outreach services. Grande also claimed that the sex education program was going to be in schools, and made it sound as if teens were being forced to participate and that the researchers were going to be doling out birth control. None of which was true.

Nonetheless, NDSU froze the grant. And it did so using an obscure 1979 state law that bans state or federal funds from being used “as family planning funds by any person or public or private agency which performs, refers, or encourages abortions.” Even though family planning was not part of the grant.

As for Planned Parenthood’s reaction, “I was pretty much shocked,” said Amy Jacobson, the public affairs manager for North Dakota Planned Parenthood. “The professors worked on this grant, it had gone through all the hoops in place at the university, and they’d received a 1.2-million grant, the largest grant their department had ever won. So we were pretty shocked when all this came to be.”

When the faculty heard that the research had been blocked because of political pressure, they were appalled. They held a silent protest on campus, drawing more than 100 faculty members. They launched a Facebook page called “in support of this partnership with Planned Parenthood.” In a letter to Bresciani, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee blasted the decision:

As we understand it, at no time during this process did you talk to the researchers whose project is in question. The announcement of your decision to freeze this funding on a conservative talk show… makes it difficult to see your decision as anything other than bowing to political pressure.

In an opinion piece in the local paper, they also wrote:

We request that President Bresciani immediately reverse his decision to suspend this important program and evaluation. Teens in North Dakota are at risk for unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and should be able to access and receive information and education that can help them to make good, informed choices to prevent these outcomes.

The hasn’t outrage hasn’t stopped there. Just this week the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine (SAHM), a professional organization devoted to advancing teen health, released a statement “vigorously” protesting the school’s decision:

This suspension raises issues of political interference in research, academic freedom, and the importance of health information that youth need to ensure their health and well-being and protect themselves from unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

The statement also condemned NDSU’s president:

Bresciani has offered a number of shifting explanations for the suspension after complaints from several conservative North Dakota legislators due to the program’s affiliation with Planned Parenthood. The competitive $1.2 million grant, awarded in September 2012, was to be used to launch a three-year sex education program for Fargo-area teens to begin later this month. This voluntary program would teach sex education and adult life skills to teenagers aged 15 to 19 years whose parents consented to their participation.

It also emphasized the failure of abstinence-only programs in preventing teen pregnancy:

A 2010 review by the CDC’s Guide to Community Preventive Services found that sexuality education was effective in reducing adolescent sexual risk behaviors, including engagement in sexual activity and unprotected sexual activity. The CDC also found insufficient evidence for programs that deliver only abstinence messages to prevent pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Likewise, SAHM strongly supports comprehensive sexuality education and opposes abstinence-only programs. SAHM supports the findings of the CDC and is concerned that abstinence-only programs are ineffective in changing behavior and that they limit life-saving information to young people.

The case is now being reviewed by North Dakota’s attorney general, who will decide whether the school’s legal claim about Planned Parenthood is valid.

In the meantime, Secor-Turner is optimistic. She can’t imagine that a political battle will prevent hundreds of teens from getting the health information they need about a subject that is so ordinary and yet so crucial.

It’s only their lives and their futures.

Image Credit: Larry Fisher/Quad-City Times/ZUMAPRESS.com