Across the U.S., the number of teenagers having babies has hit a record low — it’s down to about one out of every 45 young women. That trend hasn’t extended to certain parts of Texas, where it's still nearly twice the national average.
To understand why teen pregnancy rates are so high in some parts of Texas, you need to meet Jessica Chester. When Chester was in high school in Garland, she decided she wanted to become a doctor.
"I was top of the class," she says. "I had a GPA of 4.5, a full-tuition scholarship to UTD. I was not the stereotypical girl someone would look at and say ‘Oh, she's gonna get pregnant and drop out of school.'"
But right before her senior year, Chester missed her period.
She bought a pregnancy test and told her mom to wait outside the bathroom door.
"I peed on the stick and saw both lines came up," Chester says. "I had tears, and I remember just opening the door and she was standing there with her arms out, and she just wrapped me up and hugged me.
“I just cried, and she told me it's going to be OK."
Chester's mother had also been a teen mom. So had her grandmother.
Teen pregnancy tied to policy not just poverty
Every year in Texas, about 35,000 young women get pregnant before their 20th birthday. Traditionally, the two variables most commonly associated with high teen birth rates are education and poverty. But a new study, co-authored by Dr. Julie DeCesare, shows those aren't the only factors at play.
"We controlled for poverty as a variable, and we found these 10 centers where their teen birth rates were much higher than would be predicted,” she said.
DeCesare, whose research will appear in the June issue of the journal “Obstetrics & Gynecology,” says several of those clusters were in Texas.
San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth and Dallas all stood out as having alarmingly high rates of teen pregnancy. The Dallas and San Antonio areas had rates 50 percent and 40 percent above the national average.
Gwen Daverth, CEO of the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says teens everywhere are having sex, and teen pregnancy is an issue of policy, not promiscuity.
"What I mean by that is that it is the policies and processes and support that the adults put in place to give the youth the info they need to make the decision in the moment,” she says. “What we see is there are not supports in place, not conversations happening, we're not connecting high risk youth with contraception services. Where other states have put in more progressive policies."
California, for example, cut its teenage birth rate by 64 percent from 1991 to 2012. During a similar time period, the teen birth rate in Texas also fell, but only by 56 percent.
"[Texas] is the most restrictive state when it comes to accessing health care," Daverth says. "Only us and Utah have a law that if you’re already a parent, you are the legal medical guardian of your baby but you cannot make your own medical decisions without the now grandma involved."
That means if you're a teen mom and want prescription birth control, you usually have to get the approval of your own parents, the now grandparents, first. Houston-area State Rep. Sarah Davis, a Republican, proposed legislation to change this, but the bill died in the House.
Daverth says Texas has the highest rate of repeat teen pregnancies in the country.
Most Texas schools teach abstinence or nothing
Three months after Jessica Chester had her baby Skylar at the age of 18, she found out she was pregnant again. At the time, Chester had enrolled in UT Dallas with a full academic scholarship and was double-majoring in molecular biology and business administration.
The education Chester never got, she says, was sex ed.
"In hindsight, it's like dude, what were you all thinking?” she says. “I came in 17, pregnant — why weren't you all lining up the chart and showing me [my] options?"
Chester's high school, in Garland ISD, offered abstinence-only information. According to a report by the liberal watchdog Texas Freedom Network, the majority of school districts in the state only teach abstinence or don't offer any sexual education at all.
Nicole Hudgens, with the socially conservative group Texas Values, supports abstinence-only education and says there are plenty of options for young moms who become pregnant.
- Jessica Chester and family. CREDIT COURTESY OF JESSICA CHESTER
"There are so many places like crisis pregnancy centers that are able to help these girls that are in need," Hudgens says.
Crisis pregnancy centers provide counseling and support for pregnant teens but generally don't offer abortions or contraception.
Teen pregnancies in Texas cost the state $1.1 billion each year, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Gwen Daverth says the costs are due to lost wages and an increased reliance on social services.
"One of the things we know is that 60 percent of teen parents will not graduate from high school and only 2 percent will go on to graduate from college," she says.
No regrets, but wouldn’t want this for her kids
Jessica Chester falls into that two percent. She had to take out loans for daycare and leaned heavily on her mom and husband but she graduated from UTD and works in community outreach. She doesn't regret anything. But, as she sits on the couch at her home in Garland, she admits it's tough.
"A lot of my sorority sisters, they've gone through medical school, are doctors now…and I'm so happy for them, but I can't lie sometimes it's hard,” she said. “Every graduation that comes around, I know that's something I always wanted to do and it’s hard because I do feel like a failure, like I gave up on my goals and dreams or messed them up.”
She continues: “It's not that it was easy to make the decisions I made but when I look at my children I don’t regret a thing. Even through the tears it might sound like I'm sad, I'm not sad. It’s just the reality of knowing my life is completely altered because of decisions I made as a teenager."
Chester heard her older boys laughing upstairs and wiped away her tears.
She says teens, no matter their GPA or family income, are going to have sex. And if they don't have access to education and contraception, they, too, will become teenage parents.