Significant news but little progress mark year in reproductive health


Editor’s note: As we count down the final days of 2007, we look back at some of the most interesting or important stories Minnesota Monitor covered in the past year. Here’s the second in this ongoing series.

While 2007 was a year of big news in reproductive health, it wasn’t a year of much progress.

In 2007, we heard good news that sex education can delay sexual activity and worrisome findings that abortions are up in Minnesota and that the teen birth rate is up across the country. But when it comes to action on reproductive health issues this year, we’ve heard almost nothing. The state legislature took a pass on an effort to expand comprehensive sex education, and the U.S. Congress continues to dither about whether to extend or end abstinence-based programs. It will be at least 2008 before the news reflects any policy shifts resulting from the big reproductive health news of 2007.

Still, 2007 did set the table for policy change, and it’s worth taking a look back at the stories we covered throughout the year.

Sex Education

In March, there was good news for proponents of comprehensive sex education. The Minnesota Organization of Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting (MOAPPP) released a poll showing that 77 percent of Minnesota parents supported a comprehensive sex education curriculum. The polling did not wow the state legislature, however, as it eventually dropped a provision that would have mandated comprehensive sex education programs, out of fear of a veto by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn.

July brought the National Abstinence Clearinghouse’s (NAC) annual convention to St. Paul. NAC President Leslee Unruh said that she had chosen St. Paul to “get people back to their roots,” as Minnesota was an early hotbed of the abstinence-based education (ABE) movement. In a press conference given at the start of the event, the NAC’s brain trust evinced concern about possible funding cuts for ABE, prompting Unruh to declare that “This message is not going away. The message is good — with or without federal dollars.” As of the end of the year, whether Democrats in Congress will cut funding to ABE programs is still an open question.

In September, Minnesotans got good news about sex education. The University of Minnesota was rated the best school in America at keeping its students informed about sex. In an interview with Minnesota Monitor, Emily Matson, the student co-chair of the U of M’s Sexual Health Awareness and Disease Education program, said, “There are students who come from an abstinence-only sex education or none at all. We teach these students the skills and base knowledge they need to be able to go out into the world and make better sexual decisions.”

Finally, December brought the news that sex education was helpful in delaying sexual activity. Sarah Stoesz, the President of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota (PPMNS) said, “The CDC’s study backs up what Planned Parenthood has known for decades: When we give teenagers the tools to make responsible decisions about their health, they step up to the challenge.”

But Leslee Unruh, President of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, disagreed. “The report, due out in January, does not distinguish between teens who were given contraceptive-based education and those who attended abstinence education classes,” she said. “Sexual activity was delayed, but in response to which message?”

Reproductive Health and Abortion

In February, the Minnesota Family Council came out against a bill in the state legislature that would have mandated vaccination for the human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that can be a precursor to cervical cancer in women. Tom Pritchard, the head of the Minnesota Family Council, objected to the vaccination, saying in an interview with WCCO that it was “targeting very young girls” and could lead to earlier sexual activity. Ultimately, the bill did not pass, not so much because of the Family Council’s objections, but because of concerns about mandating a vaccine that had just received the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.

July brought the sobering news that Minnesota’s abortion rate had risen for the first time in four years. In an interview with Minnesota Monitor, Sara Stoesz, the President of PPMNS, said that it was too early to determine if the increase represented a trend. “It could be that the decline we saw over the past three years has bottomed out, and it can’t go lower. It could be a statistical blip, or it could be the result of something in the external environment,” she said.

But the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) thought they knew the cause of the increase. In a strange statement, MCCL executive director Scott Fischbach said, “Planned Parenthood has learned how to take advantage of teenagers and young women by marketing its brand and building relationships to create future abortion customers.”

“The spike occurred the same year Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota opened two suburban ‘express’ mall stores targeting young women with scented oils, candles and referrals to its St. Paul abortion center.”

Stoesz said Fischbach’s statement was nothing but “wild allegations,” and said that whatever the cause of the increase, she “doubt[ed] it indicates an increased preference for abortion.”

July also saw a rare moment of agreement between pro-choice and anti-abortion activists, when the Supreme Court of Minnesota threw out convictions against two anti-abortion activists. Despite being on the opposite side of the issue, PPMNS media relations director Kathi Di Nicola said that her organization supported the ruling. “We support and fight for First Amendment rights. This case is about that,” she said. And Joe Scheidler, national director of the Pro-Life Action League, said the ruling was a “big victory for pro-life activists” in a posting on his organization’s website.

In August, Jim Sedlak, head of the anti-abortion group STOPP International, called on group members to “spend time spreading the pro-life message at [Planned Parenthood] express clinics,” including those in Minnesota. That brought a rare rebuke from the MCCL; in a statement given to Minnesota Monitor, William Poehler, communications associate for the organization, said flatly, “MCCL will not be involved in any protest at Planned Parenthood’s PLAN express clinics.”

A month later, MCCL went on their annual fall tour. At the start of October, I went to one of their meetings to report what the anti-abortion set was arguing against these days, unfortunately, I was kicked out of the meeting for being a journalist. According to MCCL staffer Andrea Rau, the meeting was “open to the public, but not to the press.” How the press differs from the public was not explained.

Later that month, PPMNS President Sarah Stoesz and Steve Sviggum, the commissioner of Labor and Industry and a former Republican leader in the Minnesota legislature, joined together at the Humphrey Institute to discuss the impact of the ongoing effort to prevent South Dakota from banning abortion. Stoesz credited her organization’s willingness to take their case to South Dakota’s voters with changing minds. “People in that state now see and can publicly talk about abortion in shades of gray, rather than in shades of black and white,” she said. “The conversation was difficult, it was painful, I do not want to go through it again anytime soon, but ultimately, we learned a lot from it.”

Sviggum agreed that it was important to come together, but his proposed middle ground — “come together to say reasonably, come together for life of the mother, health of the mother, but not partial-birth or for birth control” — did not persuade Stoesz.

The year closed on another discouraging note, this time on the national front, with the revelation that the national teen birth rate had increased for the first time since 1991. Di Nicola, speaking for PPMNS, said teens “need the right information to make responsible, healthy decisions. We have a preventable public health problem in this country — at last count an estimated 750,000 American teens will become pregnant this year, and nearly four million will contract a sexually transmitted infection. Honest, accurate sexuality education is part of a common-sense solution to a serious issue.”

But Leslee Unruh of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse said, “The CDC, big Pharma and others should take responsibility [for] the teen pregnancy numbers.” She added, “The CDC has promoted and aligned themselves with the contraceptive-only message; wrapping teen pregnancies in latex has failed and is unscientific. America’s teens are failing at the contraceptive message; condoms don’t work.”