Schenectady County

Schenectady’s teen abortion rate soaring

Schenectady’s strikingly high teen pregnancy rate has been raising alarms for years, but its consequ

Schenectady’s strikingly high teen pregnancy rate has been raising alarms for years, but its consequences are troubling even beyond the obvious.

There is an abortion rate of roughly 50 percent among these pregnant children, while adoptions have fallen to an all-time low in the past decade.

Against those tides, the state Health Department has developed new programs it hopes to use to persuade teens in Schenectady and Rochester not to get pregnant.

Those two cities are neck-and-neck for the highest teen pregnancy rate outside of New York City. In fact, both cities’ rates are higher than some of New York City’s boroughs. By comparison, Schenectady’s rate is about twice as high as Albany’s.

More of those children are being aborted than born.

More abortions

For the most recent year for which data is available, 2010, there were 173 abortions in the county and 152 live births among females ages 15 to 19. There were also 15 miscarriages among that age group.

Although some local officials speculated that Schenectady has a high teen pregnancy rate because teen mothers are more welcomed and supported in low-income neighborhoods, the data doesn’t support that theory. Schenectady’s poorest neighborhoods had the same abortion rate — roughly 50 percent — as the richer areas.

Even with the high abortion rate, some very young Schenectady teenagers are still becoming mothers. Among pregnant females ages 10 to 14, three got an abortion in Schenectady County in 2009, while another gave birth. In 2008, six of those very young women had abortions and one gave birth.

Physically, those mothers face no more health risks in pregnancy than other mothers, but they tend to deny that they’re pregnant, avoid prenatal care and ignore their own health, said Dr. Nicholas Kulbida, chief medical officer of women’s services for Ellis Medicine.

“The biggest risk of all is not taking care of themselves,” he said.

Most pregnant teenagers don’t get prenatal care until more than halfway through the pregnancy, he said. They tend to have poor nutrition, and some seem to be hoping for a miscarriage.

“For those kids who deny the fact they’re pregnant, they’re more likely to take additional risks or chances,” he said.

Without prenatal care, the teens also don’t get lessons on parenting that doctors provide, and they often aren’t capable of judging their situation and making good decisions.

“They may not be able to make an adequate choice about whether they keep the child,” Kulbida said.

When they arrive in labor, doctors must do more than simply deliver the baby.

“You have to get them mentally ready for the whole process of becoming parents,” he said. “These kids never wanted to be pregnant, some of them, and they face a very stark reality very quickly.”

School officials are well aware of their “children raising children,” as school board President Cathy Lewis put it. Lewis is worried that those parents have the skills to raise their children. School officials are looking into six-week parenting classes to help the many teenagers who are having children.

But Lewis is also worried what parenthood will do for the mother’s education.

“We’d like to keep them in school as long as possible,” she said.

Adoption decision

While they’re working to keep students from getting pregnant, other groups are trying to convince teens that they should give their baby up for adoption if they do get pregnant.

Adoption has become far less popular. While roughly 50 percent of Schenectady County’s pregnant teens get an abortion, almost none choose adoption.

One of the main adoption agencies, Catholic Charities’ Community Maternity Services, said only five babies in the extended Capital Region were adopted through its programs last year. Ten years ago, 20 to 25 babies were adopted each year.

“I think a lot of things contributed to that,” said Associate Executive Director Margaret Ellett. “Obviously, abortion is one of the issues. There’s also a lot of support services. And it’s not as taboo.”

Young pregnant women used to leave their hometown, give birth secretly, set up an adoption and then come back and “pretend it never happened,” Ellett said. But many of those mothers regretted the decision later, wondering what happened to their child.

Many children have searched for their birth parents, leading to a rise in online resources to reunite or at least exchange health information.

“Adoption has gotten a bad name,” Ellett said, “but over the years adoption has changed. It’s a lot different than it was. It’s far more open.”

Adoptive parents often sign an open or semi-open contract, in which they share photographs and sometimes letters with the birth mother.

“Research has shown it’s good for everybody,” Ellett said. “Really for the child to have the knowledge of that person firsthand, it helps them develop their personality. It’s not a secret — secrets are dirty.”

The birth mother is also reassured that she made a good decision and that her child is safe, Ellett said.

“It’s certainly healthier.”

And she thinks it’s the best choice for teen mothers.

“For the child to have a family in a better position, and a healthier position, can be better for that child,” she said. “An adolescent isn’t ready to be at that level of commitment to a child. I’m saying that generally — every individual situation has to be judged on its merits because there are young people who are ready.”

Her agency plans to start outreach at local hospitals to encourage adoption.

“It’s really looking out for the best interests of the child.”

State efforts

The disparity between Schenectady and the state averages is of particular concern. The rest of the state is enjoying a decline in teen pregnancy.

“Nationally, really we are seeing a decline in teen birth,” said Kris Mesler, associate director of the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health for the state Health Department.

“One of our major challenges is we continue to have striking economic and racial disparities,” she said. “We’re really working to get more of our programming into those areas of high need.”

The Schenectady school board is also trying to bring more sex education lessons into the schools, and nonprofits have organized a coalition in hopes of combating the issue during social events. Both are focusing on comprehensive sex education.

The Health Department is taking a slightly different approach. Its new programs follow this guideline: “The best contraception for an adolescent is hope for the future.”

In addition to comprehensive sex education and access to reproductive health care, the program offers “adult preparation” to get teens to plan for the future.

“We really look at transitioning to adulthood,” Mesler said.

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