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Teen Pregnancies Drop

Teen pregnancy rates dropping

Linda Seymour considered abortion. She weighed adoption.

Then her child kicked and everything changed.

"You knew it was a baby," she said.

So she stuck out the pregnancy. She gave birth to Michael Bowser on Jan. 10, 2004. Seymour was 17, a senior at Lenape Technical School in Manor, Armstrong County. Her life changed forever.

Seymour is just one of scores of teenagers who get pregnant every year. But an increased fear of contracting sexually transmitted diseases -- and more teenagers deciding to use birth control or simply waiting to have sex -- has dropped teen pregnancy rates to their lowest levels in 30 years, experts said.

The national pregnancy rate fell 24 percent among 15- to 19-year-olds from 1992 through 2000, the most recent data available, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington, D.C.

Rates during that same period dropped in Pennsylvania more dramatically, by almost 30 percent -- the 10th largest decline in the country.

The trend continued locally in Allegheny and seven surrounding counties, which experienced drops in pregnancy rates for 15- to 19-year-olds from 1996 to 2003, according to the state Department of Health. Fayette County's rate remained almost unchanged. Only Armstrong County saw a significant increase during the period.

"A real concern about STDs and AIDS, in particular, has played a factor," said Bill Albert, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "It has gotten guys' attention in a way that pregnancy has not. Before, teen pregnancy was viewed as the girls' problem. With AIDS, that is not the case."

Pregnancy among 15- to 19-year-olds nationwide reached its highest recorded level in 1990, with 117 of every 1,000 girls becoming pregnant, according to Albert's organization. The federal government began compiling teen pregnancy data in 1972, when it started tracking teen abortions.

The most recent data, for 2000, showed a national teen pregnancy rate of 84 for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. Statewide, the rate for that same age group is 60 per 1,000 girls, the 12th lowest in the country.

Doubting the numbers

Although numbers show a decline in teen pregnancies, Alana Smith doesn't put much stock in statistics.

More girls are getting pregnant now and glorifying it than she can recall at any point during her education.

"There are plenty who are pregnant in this school right now," said Smith, 18, a senior at Peabody High School. "I think they think it's a trend, like they don't want to be left out. It's like they want to fit in with the crowd.

"They're living in a fantasy."

Smith would know. She became pregnant at 16 and gave birth to a daughter, Arriana Beck, last May.

Smith is scheduled to graduate on time, but she attended classes at night and on Saturdays to do so. She works part time at Home Depot and plans to attend ITT Technical Institute in Monroeville beginning in June.

Smith is one of 15 teenage girls at Peabody who participate in the ELECT Teen Pregnancy Program. Offered throughout the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the program teaches teen mothers and fathers parenting skills and provides education services.

The school district also provides child-care centers at Brashear, Schenley, Oliver and Westinghouse high schools.

"We had a peak of about 600 kids one year," said Kathy Short, district coordinator of the ELECT program. "This year we'll serve about 400 kids. That is with teen fathers, as well. In the last four years, we have had about the same number of kids pregnant, with a decreasing school population."

Teen pregnancy is not exclusive to inner-city communities, said Debbie Atkins, Peabody's ELECT program advocate.

"This is just my opinion, but I believe it's taken care of (in affluent communities)," Atkins said. "They go away for a minute, and they do what they have to do."

Officials with the Mt. Lebanon, Plum, Seneca Valley and West Allegheny school districts did not return phone calls or would not discuss their sex education programs.

The North Hills School District addresses puberty in sixth grade, and STDs and AIDS in eighth and 10th grades, said Rick Dervanik, the district's curriculum leader for health and physical education.

"It's very age appropriate," he said.

Teens can find help from community outreach organizations throughout the region.

The state requires public schools only to teach students about STDs and HIV in sex education, said Mike Storm, spokesman for the state Department of Education. Private schools are required to offer "health" classes, with nothing specifying sex-related topics, Storm said.

"Some districts are exemplary. Others, once a year they do a 40-minute lecture on AIDS," said Brenda Green, vice president for education with Planned Parenthood/Women's Health Services of Western Pennsylvania. "What sex education a child gets depends on what street you live on."

Adagio Health in Pittsburgh, formerly Family Health Council, and ARIN Intermediate Unit in Indiana County offer teen pregnancy programs in schools and other community settings, usually free of charge, thanks to state funding.

Family Links in McKeesport, Roselia Center in Oakland and Gwen's Girls on the North Side operate residential programs for nursing teens.

"In a course of a year, we have about 100 clients who come in to live for various amounts of time," said Mark Thomas, Family Links' program manager.

Facing the future

Kelly Hileman doesn't recall the first seizure, but it occurred about the time she completed her first trimester.

The position of her unborn child in the womb caused the seizures. Sometimes, Hileman would faint, falling on her belly and endangering her child.

By April 2003, about three months shy of her due date, Hileman was restricted to bed rest. A junior at Lenape Technical School at the time, she was in and out of hospitals, first Armstrong County Memorial Hospital, and then various Pittsburgh facilities.

"I thought my life was ruined, that I wouldn't be able to do anything," Hileman recalled.

She quit the Ford City High School softball team and missed her junior and senior proms.

On July 19, 2003, about a month after finishing her junior year, Hileman, 17, gave birth to Alexis Kunst.

Hileman graduated a year later. Alexis attended mom's graduation.

Linda Seymour, who delivered her baby boy when she also was 17, said she and her boyfriend used condoms when having sex, giving her a false sense of security.

"Almost everyone that I knew (was sexually active)," Seymour said. "Most of my friends were on the pill or the patch. A lot of them used condoms, too.

"I had a 4.0 (grade-point average) in school before I got pregnant. I missed all those days. I had to go to summer school to graduate."

Seymour and Hileman, friends in high school, now live together with their children. Both young women are unemployed and recently broke off long-term relationships with their children's fathers.

Smith, of Peabody, still is dating Arriana's father, but carefree adolescence has given way to the weight of responsible parenting.

"It's really hard," Smith said. "You just have more to worry about. If I could have her at a different time of my life, I would."