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Most teens get pregnant on purpose because other life goals seem out of reach, says Cornell researcher

ITHACA, N.Y. -- "Many teenage pregnancies aren't accidental but intentional because of girls who see no life goals other than being a mother as realistically within their reach," says Andrea Parrot, Ph.D., a Cornell University women's health and human sexuality expert.

That's a major reason why most current sex and pregnancy prevention education efforts "are ineffective at preventing teenage pregnancy and the U.S. has an outrageous teen pregnancy rate -- the highest in the industrialized world," said Parrot, associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

In the recent Cornell Cooperative Extension teleconference Women's Health Across the Generations, which was downlinked to 15 sites across New York state in February, Parrot advocated wider use of long-term, multi-dimensional, community-based programs that have proven successful because they offer hope for a brighter future and the means to achieve life goals other than motherhood.

"Such programs are undoubtedly expensive. However, providing the program for a girl for several years will cost less than the social welfare, medical and lost income costs for a teen mother in the first year she has the baby," Parrot pointed out.

Effectively preventing teen pregnancies would save the billions of dollars society pays to support a teen mother, her children and even her grandchildren, often for a lifetime. It also would break the cycle related to psychopathologies in our culture, including drug and alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, drug-induced birth defects, dropping out of school, crime, domestic violence and poverty.

"As a society, we keep on paying and paying when our teens become mothers," said Parrot, who has been working in the area of teen sexuality for 20 years and is the co-author of the 1979 manual Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention: A Team Approach.

"Too many teenage girls see themselves as having nothing to strive for -- they can't see graduating from high school because they have few role models to follow, their teachers give them little encouragement about their abilities, their families are chaotic and their friends are on drugs. Parenting looks like the best thing going, many girls think, because babies provide an immediate source of unconditional love," Parrot said.

Researchers now know that certain factors predispose girls to choose early motherhood over other goals. These include poverty, school failure, a mother or sister who was a teen mother and living in a dangerous neighborhood, Parrot said.

"We also know that prevention programs based on promoting abstinence don't reduce adolescent sex and that school-based clinics, sex education and contraceptive service programs have little impact on teen sexual activity. The adolescent pregnancy rate continues to rise in every state," she added.

Yet, some programs effectively counter these trends. One of the most successful programs was developed by Dr. Michael Carrera of the National Adolescent Sexuality Training Center for the Children's Aid Society in New York City. Whereas the city's teen pregnancy rate is 14 percent, the rate for the high-risk girls in the program, which has been replicated in 27 sites around the country, has dropped to 4 percent.

These programs help girls acquire skills to achieve life goals other than motherhood. Carrera's program, for example, includes guaranteed college admission, employment, personal savings plan and medical services. In addition, the program focuses on teaching skills and values related to lifetime sports, self-expression and family life and provides sex education and counseling services.

To be most effective, programs must target high-risk girls early (before age 10) and help strengthen their families and provide educational enrichment and economic opportunities.

"If we keep doing what we've been doing regarding sex education and pregnancy prevention, we will continue to get what we've got: a tremendous waste of time, money, energy, human potential and an outrageous teen pregnancy rate that's associated with many ills of today's society," Parrot concluded. "Instead, we have to spend the money up front and provide girls early with the support and skills they need to have a sense of control over their lives and the means to make meaningful choices."

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