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With sex ed, contraception--and Plan B--NYC teen pregnancy rate drops

The teen pregnancy rate among New York City’s public high school students dropped 27% over a decade, new city data shows.
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The teen pregnancy rate among New York City’s public high school students dropped 27% over a decade, new city data shows. Among 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, 73 became pregnant in 2010. That’s down from 99 of 1,000 girls who became pregnant in 2001.

“We’re seeing that there are two things happening: teens are both delaying sex, and those that are having sex are more likely to use contraceptives,” Deborah Kaplan, assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Health’s Bureau of Maternal, Infant and Reproductive Health, told “Our efforts to make sex education and birth control more widely available in public high schools are working.”

According to the health department’s numbers, she’s right. From 2001 to 2011, there was a 12-point drop in the proportion of public high school students who have ever had sex: 51% to 39%. And from just 2009 to 2011, the proportion of sexually active female students who used hormonal contraception (Plan B included) or long-acting reversible contraception (such as an IUD) the last time they had intercourse increased from 17 to nearly 27%.

Even so, New York City’s teen pregnancy rate among girls aged 15-19 is still higher than the national average. But its teen birth rate is lower, according to the health department—presumably because of the city’s access to abortion clinics.

And though the decrease in teen pregnancies in New York City isn’t a new trend—the rate has been steadily decreasing for longer than the past decade—the news is getting more attention in light of a city-sponsored program that dispenses emergency contraception, among other services, to public high school students free of charge.

The program, called CATCH (Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Healthcare), provides confidential, onsite reproductive health to students in 13 public high schools across the city. It launched in January 2011, but didn’t catch public attention until September 2012, neatly packaged with the New York Post headline: “NYC schools give out morning-after pills to students—without telling parents.” (Kaplan said that parents were and are notified, and given the option to opt out of the program—and only 1 to 2% of parents do.)

In fact, Plan B has been available in certain public high schools since 2008—those with school-based health centers participating in the city’s reproductive health program at the time. And since 2011, all 40 of New York’s school-based health centers have been administering emergency contraception (along with other birth control methods), in addition to the 13 CATCH public high schools. The Post reported on Sunday that these centers gave out 12,721 doses of Plan B in 2011-12.

It's difficult to say how significantly the addition of Plan B to the city’s contraceptive arsenal affected NYC’s teen pregnancy rate. The health department’s most recent data stops in 2010. But Kaplan, for one, consistently stressed the department’s combination of “sex ed and providing contraception in school and in community,” never mentioning one without the other.

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. EST on February 6, 2013 to correct an erroneous sentence. Emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy if taken shortly after unprotected sex. It does not terminate pregnancies that have already begun.