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Abortion rates drop - but not for teenagers

Despite continued low county numbers and an overall decline in the state's abortion rate last year, concerns are rising about women who are undergoing the procedure - and it's because of their age.

Overall, 222 fewer abortions were performed in Minnesota in 2007 than in 2006, according to an annual report recently released by the state health department.

But the numbers among teenagers during the same period essentially held flat, with four fewer abortions than in 2006. The rate increased among more sexually active 18- and 19-year-olds, after holding steady from 2003 to 2006.

The stall, along with a jump from 2005 to 2006, could signal a change in a general downward trend in teen abortions dating back to 2001.

Lorie Alveshere, policy director of Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting (MOAPPP), said it's too early to tell if the rates reflect a shift in teen behavior, but the numbers are concerning.

According to the group's 2008 Adolescent Sexual Health Report, 35 percent of sexually active Minnesota 9th-graders and 15 percent of 12th-graders in 2007 reported never using birth control, 19 percent and 26 percent increases since 2004.

The same report also notes a jump in teen pregnancy and birth rates from 2005 to 2006, with particularly high rates among minority teens in the state.

Alveshere said a recent survey of Minnesota high school students showed that fewer teens who do have sex are talking with their partners about sexually transmitted diseases, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

While accounting for 7 percent of the state's population, Minnesota teens totaled 30 percent of chlamydia and 25 percent of gonorrhea cases in 2007, according to the MOAPPP report.

"So when we're looking at indicators of healthy behavior, those numbers seem to be going in the wrong direction," Alveshere said. "If we see pregnancy and birth rates go up, and indicators of healthy behavior go down, then maybe we're looking at changes in people's access to information."

Twenty-three residents from Douglas County had abortions in 2007, one more than in 2006. Six were teenagers.

Rates also increased by similarly small amounts in neighboring counties, including Todd, Morrison and Otter Tail.

Wendy Hellerstedt, a University of Minnesota professor who studies trends in reproductive medicine, said such small county numbers make it nearly impossible to spot trends in behavior, one way or the other.

At the state level, representatives from both sides of the abortion debate said they're pleased that overall numbers declined in 2007.

Each cited their respective efforts in helping achieve that end result.

Kathi Di Nicola, media relations director for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, said her organization continues to increase its services, providing care to more than 65,000 women in Minnesota.

"We have a lot of work left to do," Di Nicola said. "There are a lot of women who don't have access to health care, access to birth control."

Bill Poehler, communications director for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, pointed to the Positive Alternatives grant program as one of the reasons for helping decrease the total number of abortions in the state last year.

The fund, first fully implemented in 2007, provides $1.4 million in grants to programs that provide alternatives to abortion.

"We are glad to see [the abortion rate] is down, but it is still higher than the 2005 numbers," Poehler said. "There are an enormous number of deaths every year, and that's something we are very concerned about."

From a public health standpoint, Hellerstedt said there are three things people can do to help prevent abortions.

They are:

• Abstinence.

• Proper and continued use of contraceptives.

• Improved sexual health education.