Just like their national counterparts, about half of Utah teens who get pregnant on accident aren't using contraception.
But Utah teens stand out for the reasons they aren't using protection. According to newly released national and Utah data, they are much more likely than other teen moms to say that:
• They struggled to get birth control.
• They thought they couldn't get pregnant at the time.
• They believed they or their partner was sterile.
The data suggest some Utah teens don't know the facts of life either because public schools are limited in what they can say about sex, say opponents of Utah's sex education law, or because the teens aren't listening in class, say the law's supporters.
Regardless, the data provide one of the few glimpses into Utah teen sexuality. School districts and the state health department won't ask students whether they are sexually active, their number of partners and use of protection. Most other states conduct such surveys.
The teen pregnancy report comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Pregnant Risk Assessment Monitoring System, which surveys women who have recently had a live birth. They are asked about their experiences and attitudes before, during and after pregnancy. The CDC analyzed the responses of teens ages 15-19 who had unintended pregnancies from 19 states, representing 30 percent of all U.S. teen births.
The Utah Department of Health, which questioned the new mothers for the CDC, provided the state data to The Salt Lake Tribune. Nearly 17,400 babies were born to Utah teen mothers from 2004-2008. Nearly 70 percent of the Utah births were unintended.
Among the teens with unintended pregnancies, the data show:
• Slightly more Utah teens weren't using contraception 53 percent vs. 50 percent nationally.
• 35 percent of teens ages 15-17 across the country thought they couldn't get pregnant at the time, compared to 49 percent in Utah. The knowledge gap was smaller for older teens.
• Some 13 percent of teens nationally said they had trouble getting birth control, compared to 21 percent in Utah.
• And among the youngest teens, ages 15 to 17, nearly 24 percent thought they or their partner was sterile, a rate three times higher than the rest of the country.
By comparison, only 10 percent of Utah women ages 20 and older thought they or their partner was sterile.
No follow up questions were asked, so it is unclear why the teens believed what they did.
Liz Zentner, Utah PTA president-elect and the group's former health commissioner, called the sterility statistic "unbelievable."
"All I can think of is you've got young men that are just feeding a story to these girls," she said.
Laurie Baksh, manager of the health department's Maternal and Infant Health Program, wonders if the teens thought they were sterile because they didn't get pregnant during previous sexual encounters.
"It could be she doesn't understand the fertility cycle and what days you ovulate and what days you're able to get pregnant in your cycle," she said, noting that even college-aged women in Utah have reported that they were ignorant about their cycles.
Teens have told providers at the University of Utah's Teen Mother and Child Program/Teen Health Clinic in Salt Lake City that they thought they were sterile because a doctor told them that, said Joni Hemond, medical director of the program.
"I don't know anyone practicing who would ever tell a child that. To me it says maybe they [the teens] are misinterpreting."
Zentner said teens are taught when they can get pregnant and even how to avoid pregnancy in their health classes. State law says teachers must promote abstinence. While they can mention contraception, they cannot encourage its use.
"If they're covering the [state] curriculum, kids are getting enough information," she said, adding that some teens just aren't listening.
Still, some teachers fear running afoul of the law and don't talk about contraception. And four school districts only discuss abstinence: Jordan, Canyons, Alpine and Nebo.
"The key is the parents need to get more involved with their kids and not stand back and say, 'I talked to them when they were 8,'" Zentner said. "They need to talk to them often."
Karrie Galloway, CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, chalks up Utah teens' answers to the "lack" of sex education. "Kids here live in the dark," she said. "They don't know how their bodies work. They don't know how to protect themselves."
The CDC says there is insufficient evidence to show that abstinence-based education like Utah's prevents pregnancy. It recommends a "comprehensive" approach where teachers can promote abstinence along with other ways to reduce the risks of pregnancy.
So Galloway is not surprised that more Utah teens say they can't get birth control. Public schools aren't allowed to tell teens they can get free condoms at Planned Parenthood or that they could get a birth control prescription without their parents' permission.
While Utah law forbids government health clinics from giving teens birth control without parental consent, Planned Parenthood receives federal Title X funding that grants confidentiality to teens.
In 2009, Utah had the nation's 13th lowest teen birth rate. But it had a much higher birth rate among Latinas: 91.1 births per 1,000 teens compared to the national rate of 70.1, according to the state health department.
Contraception use among Utah teens
Self-reported birth control methods used among teens who had an unintended pregnancy from 2004-2008:
52.6 percent didn't use contraception.
21.1 percent used "highly effective" methods such as IUDs, oral contraceptives, hormonal patch or vaginal ring.
20.8 percent used "moderately effective" methods such as condoms.
5.5% used "less effective" methods including diaphragm, rhythm method and withdrawal.
[Note: Due to rounding, totals don't add up to 100]
Source: Utah Department of Health