It’s not uncommon to walk through Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and see dozens of Latina teens pushing strollers. “Fifty-two percent of Latina teens get pregnant at least once before age 20 – nearly twice the national average,” according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Chicago is playing a significant role in that growth. Little Village – whose residents are largely of Mexican origin – is home to David G. Farragut Career Academy, the school that in 2002 had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, said Norma Rivera, a school nurse who has worked at Farragut since 2000.
The school is 92 percent Latino and eight percent African American, Rivera said. “In 2001 to 2002, we had approximately 125 pregnant girls – on record,” she said, suggesting that the actual number of pregnancies for that time period could be higher, if one includes teens who had miscarriages or aborted. At the time, Farragut had about 3000 students enrolled. Now, enrollment has dropped to 1,500 students and the pregnancy rate remains consistent or slightly higher. “We have about 75 pregnancies [a year],” she said.
Why they are getting pregnant
The girls believe in certain misconceptions regarding contraception, specifically the pill, Rivera said. “I have heard, ‘Contraception has side effects,’ So I say, ‘Having sex without contraception also has side effects, have you thought about that?’” But the less life altering side effects don’t seem to deter these girls from having unprotected sex. “The number one reason they will not take contraception is because they say they’ll get fat,” she said.
Dr. Kara Greeley works at Lawndale Christian Health center at Farragut. Many of the girls she sees are 15 to 16 years old. And while age 13 “is on the young side,” she said, they too get pregnant.
It is not uncommon in Little Village for a girl to get married at a young age and then get pregnant – but unwed mothers are still more common. Greeley, a resident of the neighborhood herself, explained many of the girls are psychologically programmed to start a family early and to have several children.
“It’s the norm – in terms of family history,” she said. “My older moms (patients) who grew up in Mexico had babies at 14 or 15 or 16,” she said. And the environment in which these girls live is also a contributing factor. “If you’re in a neighborhood where you don’t see anything but that, it’s sort of the expectation,” Greeley said.
Because of their low socio-economic status, many of the girls are not exposed to other ways of life. “If you’ve never known anyone who went to college or had a career before having a family, it’s going to seem like a really strange choice,” she said.
While clinic staff doesn’t hand out condoms in the school, they do prescribe them and they also prescribe birth control. But, according to Greeley, a teen on birth control is more likely to wind up pregnant. “I always tell a teen girl [that] if I put her on birth control, the odds are you’re going to come back in here pregnant, because statistically that’s true,” she said. Greeley tells the girls how to take the pill and gives them written instructions – but they often don’t take it properly – sometimes forgetting to take it and then having unprotected sex, falsely thinking they are not at risk of getting pregnant because they are on the pill.
Nicole Heath is a clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center and said teen pregnancy can be due to the inability to plan. “Your brain doesn’t fully develop until you’re 20, 21. The last part of your brain that develops is your frontal lobe and that’s the part that logistically plans something out,” she said. Teens lack the maturity to make their own decisions. And often, if their friends are pregnant or have babies, they may see it as the thing to do, she said.
Diana Reyes is 18 years old, five months pregnant, lives in Little Village and attends Farragut. Her parents are from Mexico. She had been with her boyfriend since 2005 and said [of their relationship], “we were just playing around,” until she wound up pregnant, “and it was a whole totally different story” – including her relationship status.
She is now single.
“I’m on my own,” she said. “We were not really planning it, but we were not avoiding it neither. So it was like, something had to happen,” Reyes said of her unplanned pregnancy.
Like many of her classmates, Reyes relied on the “pullout method” – and it failed her.
Getting pregnant has affected all aspects of her life. Before her pregnancy, Reyes said she was unhappy, was “all over the place” and partied a lot, but now she says that her thoughts and life are more focused. Before acting, she asks herself, “What am I going to do that is going to benefit my baby?” She has become more conscious of her exercise and eating habits; “no more chips and spicy food.” She also said that she makes a conscious effort to walk a lot and drink a lot of water.
Reyes is not alone among her group of friends. “Most of my friends, yeah they’ve become pregnant and stuff like that,” she said.
Dr. Melissa Gilliam is chief of family planning and a professor at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She focuses on the use of contraceptives among teens who are at-risk for unintended pregnancies. She has led several studies of pregnancy in Latina teens in Little Village and Pilsen. In 2007, she conducted a study about the factors influencing Mexican-American teens to start having sex. She studied 271 Mexican-American teens and young adults on Chicago’s West Side.
Gilliam said girls whose parents instilled in them a strong sense of self and encouraged them to pursue an education and a career were less likely to get pregnant at an early age. And conversely, she said, of those who didn’t look to the future, “We know that people who have plans for the next six months are less likely to get pregnant,” she said.
Gilliam said adolescents in general are less likely to use birth control as a form of contraception at the start of sexual activity. “Among adolescents, they seek birth control – on average – nine months after initiating sexual activity,” she said. But in the Latino community, especially with teens whose parents immigrated to the United States recently, contraception is still a taboo topic. While condoms and birth control may be available to them, Gilliam said that, “premeditated sexual activity was really considered bad.” By bringing a condom with them, girls could be called a “slut,” she said.
The perceived benefits of pregnancy
In the state of Illinois, if a woman – or teen – is pregnant, she qualifies for Medicaid “with very few exceptions,” Greeley said, noting that in the seven years she has worked at the health center, only once did she come across a case where a woman didn’t qualify. Along with Medicaid comes other services previously unavailable to these girls, and Greeley speculates the added attention and care are contributing factors to the high teen pregnancy rate.
“You can get a lot more services when you’re pregnant than when you’re not. You get WIC (Women Infant Child), you get a Medicaid card, you get in support groups, you get a lot of attention,” she said.
WIC is a federally funded health and nutrition program for pregnant women and new mothers and their children.
Sara Anderson, a social worker with Chicago Childcare Society, works at Farragut. “There are a number of students who plan their pregnancies,” she said. They’ve been with their boyfriends for a couple of years and, “its just kind of the next step in their minds,” she said. “Even if they [the girls] say it wasn’t planned, they weren’t using any form of contraception. They may not want to come out and say it was planned, but it wasn’t necessarily unplanned,” Anderson said. “And usually they are very excited about it.”