Catherine Ndhlovu, public health nurse with the Children First program, holds Jasmine at her home in Jenks. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World

Even as Oklahoma’s teen birth rate remained second-highest in the nation for the third year in a row in 2016, local stakeholders are keeping positive about the progress being made.

The state’s rate of 33.4 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19 was second only to Arkansas, according to the Oklahoma Department of Health and the National Center for Health Statistics.

However, from 2012 to 2016, the teen birth rate dropped by 29 percent. Since 1991, it has dropped by more than 52 percent.

Sharla Owens, executive director of the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says the numbers are cause for celebration.

“One thing we don’t want to lose sight of as a community, particularly in Tulsa County, is that we have made tremendous progress,” Owens said.

Tulsa County saw the rate drop by more than 53 percent from 1991 to 2016.

Combating the birth rate has come on many fronts, Owens said, including organizational efforts from nonprofits, schools, local businesses and faith-based groups, as well as educational initiatives involving parents, teachers and others.

“As the saying goes, it takes a village,” Owens said.

One such local group is the Take Control Initiative, which works to reduce the rate of unplanned and teen pregnancies in the Tulsa area by providing education, outreach and free clinical services and contraception.

Laura Bellis, program director of the initiative, said education about and access to contraception is a vital component of continuing to reduce the teen birth rate. She said Oklahoma must continue to “expand education for the community as a whole because you have to know about healthy preconception practices” to make healthy decisions.

Bellis noted that roughly 50 percent of all pregnancies in Oklahoma are unplanned. For women of any age, but especially teens, “going into an unplanned pregnancy creates so many challenges,” she said.

Nearly half of all teen mothers begin receiving welfare within five years of the birth of their first child, according to the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. And teen mothers are more likely to deliver pre-term and babies with a low birth weight, two factors which raise the probability of health problems for children.

Last summer, without notice, the federal government eliminated a five-year Teen Pregnancy Prevention grant from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health. The move left teen pregnancy-prevention programs scrambling to replace the funding.

Owens encourages teens, parents and guardians to have conversations about sex and pregnancy. Many resources can be found on the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and Take Control Initiative websites.

Bellis said public discussions about preventing pregnancy often devolve into shaming teenage girls and women.

“We talk so much about prevention, and that’s how people view contraception — as a tool for prevention, and it sounds like shaming or telling people not to have kids,” Bellis said. “I wish it was a more proactive, positive conversation.”

Reece Ristau


Twitter: @reecereports