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Birth control a familiar debate in Coos County

March 07, 2012
BERLIN – When it comes to the debate over birth control, the old adage holds: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Thirty years ago this month, Cathy McDowell, of Randolph, was quoted in this paper arguing against efforts to restrict family planning – and praising the progress made by bringing this program to Coos County. Reached on Friday afternoon, McDowell, now a private non-profit consultant, said, "It's hard to believe that we're still having this conversation."

McDowell through her work at the Coos County Coos County Family Health Center in the 1970s and 1980s instituted the first program offering birth control to women locally. That was a tough sell in those days in this heavily Catholic region -- where Berlin's Main Street stores used to close for Good Friday and more than a dozen masses occurred each weekend. Still, McDowell said people were understanding – and even some younger priests, while not supporting the use of contraceptives realized there was a problem with teenage pregnancy.

"Clearly something had to be done," McDowell said, "it was something of a crisis." In 1972, Berlin Reporter article said, Coos County's teen-age pregnancy rate was 19 percent – nearly one in five girls became pregnant before adulthood.

Things have improved dramatically since then. In part this is a national trend, yet the U.S. still has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any other developed country. Coos County's teen pregnancy rate dropped to a present rate of 8-10 percent or about half the 1970s rate. With such a small sample the percentage varies and is unduly impacted by relatively few births. In 2011, there were 238 births to teenage mothers in Coos County – 34 percent of all births.

But Coos County still leads the state in this area, but the numbers reflect social demographics that are kin to the larger problems of poverty, substance abuse and poor educational attainment. For example, a 2007 Carsey Institute study, said the North Country and particularly Berlin High School has a high rate of binge drinking, marijuana use and high school dropouts.

Statistically speaking teen mothers are off to horrible start -- they are more unlikely to graduate high school, and are prone to single-parenthood, instability and poverty. For their children it's potentially worse with a mix of cultural and physical deficits. Teen mothers have a higher rate of complicated pregnancies – leading to prematurity, developmental and medical disabilities. Studies suggest these infants have a 64 percent chance of a life of poverty.

Coos County Family Health Services' Pleasant Street clinic provides family planning services – including distributing birth control devises. They receive federal Title X funds, a program started by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s to provide voluntary family planning and ensure healthy pregnancies for poor and uninsured women. While they are not required to ask for parental permission for minors before providing birth control, said Adele Woods, CEO of Coos County Family Health Services, around "93 percent talk to one or both parents."

If a pregnancy is confirmed, CCFHS provides information about various options – including abortion and adoption. Woods is quick to point out that they do not perform abortion – in fact, the closest place to obtain one is in Concord, more than 100 miles away.

"Young people are more aware of the risk," Woods said, "not just of pregnancy but STDs (sexually transmitted disease) as well. Data shows fewer teens are having sex."

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