How One State Nearly Halved Its Teen Pregnancy Rate (Hint: Not Abstinence)

Photo: BSIP/ Getty Images.
Update: Congress is in the middle of an ugly debate over whether to strip Planned Parenthood of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding, a move that could leave hundreds of thousands of women without health care. That includes access to effective, affordable birth control, which many women have taken for granted. After Colorado proved just how much good can be done by providing contraception to low-income women, it's scary to imagine what might happen to women in other states if they can't get birth control through Planned Parenthood.

This story was originally published on July 6, 2015.

Between 2009 and 2013, Colorado reduced its teen pregnancy rate by an incredible 40%. The state's abortion rate fell further, by 42%. Yet, despite those amazing numbers, the future of the program behind Colorado's success is in danger.

It wasn't rocket science; the state just provided teens and poor women with free IUDs and other long-acting forms of birth control. For the past six years, the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, the state government program behind the free contraceptives, has been funded by a private donation. That money is running out, and in May, Republican lawmakers torpedoed a proposal to dedicate $5 million in state money to keep it going, leaving the state's health department scrambling for support.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would not comment beyond a statement released on July 1 about the ongoing search for funding. In it, Larry Wolk, M.D., executive director and chief medical officer for the department, said, “We are working closely with our partners who believe in this initiative to find the funding necessary to continue providing contraceptive choices to young women across Colorado."

Without additional funding, many of the gains the program had made could be reversed, and the state's unplanned-pregnancy rate could start creeping up again. Low-income women will also still be able to rely on clinics funded by Title X, the federal program that helps fund reproductive healthcare services and family planning.

But even that is under attack from conservative policitians. Both the U.S. House and Senate have proposed huge cuts to Title X and other pregnancy-prevention programs last month; the House proposal would defund Title X altogether. This could leave more than 4 million people without access to basic health care.

Colorado has been the most successful at cutting the birthrate among teenagers, but it's not an isolated bit of good news: According to Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the national teenage birthrate declined by 29% between 2010 and 2014. There's evidence that, given the resources, it's possible to make huge strides in a short time. The question is whether forces opposed to the right of women and girls to make informed reproductive decisions will undo these results.

As Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood Action Fund's president, said in the wake of the House's proposal to cut Title X funding to zero, "We've made a lot of progress in the last 40 years, and there is still a lot of work left to do. This is not a time to go backwards."

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