Tennessee teen pregnancy rates on decline, still racially disproportionate

The University Health Center. Students can get free STD and HIV tests and female exams.


By Maegan Partee and Aisha Naantaanbuu

Monica Harris, 42, had her first child when she was 15. She thought she knew everything she needed to know about sex and preventing pregnancy until she learned she was 10 weeks pregnant.

“All I knew about sex were condoms and birth control pills,” Harris said. “I never ever bought any condoms because I was too embarrassed to. I felt like people were going to judge me if they saw me buying some, but honestly feeling embarrassed is nothing compared to taking care of a child when you’re still a child yourself.”

Harris also said her knowledge about protecting herself suffered because her mom didn’t talk to her about sex.

“I’m not totally blaming my mama because having sex was my choice, but I really wish she would have talked to me about it,” Harris said. “All she ever told me was that I better not bring any babies into our house.”

She ended up relying on what she’d hear about sex from her friends and other people around her at school.


While the teen pregnancy rate in Tennessee dropped 59 percent in the last 24 years, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 38 percent of African American teenagers have dropped out of high school because they become pregnant. Also, 16 percent of African American women get pregnant before the age of 20.

There are two main causes for unexpected pregnancies for black women, according to Jennifer Sobrowski, a family nurse practitioner in Memphis, poverty and a lack of proper sex education in public schools.

Sobrowski explained that poor black women often don’t have health insurance, so it’s not likely that they can afford regular birth control. While clinics will provide free birth control, many poor black women don’t have reliable transportation to travel to these places. Also, some simply don’t know that free birth control is an option because they’ve never been properly educated about birth control options and access.

In the early 1990s, new and improved methods of birth control were introduced to the public. The birth control pill was reformulated with a lower hormone dosage to be less painful r women. The DepoProvera (shot), female condom, IUD, Ortho Evra and Nuvaring introduced as long range birth control that could last three months to five years.

The longer range of options allowed women to pick the most effective birth control for them. These advances in women’s reproductive health lead to the question of why black women still have higher rates of teen and unplanned pregnancies.

“Birth control pills weren’t an option for me,” Harris said. Harris’s mother believed that her daughter did not need to get out birth control because she shouldn’t be having sex and such a young age. Since Harris didn’t get the proper education from a physician, she ended up learning from her friends who didn’t know much about sex education themselves.

Although the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned pregnancy states rate in Tennessee as dropped around eight percent since 2014, many students said they do not have the proper education on sex and pregnancy.

In a study done by Our Voices and Experience Matter, about 90 percent of students feel that they haven’t been given enough information when it comes to sexual activity and pregnancy prevention.

Cherisse Scott, founder and CEO of Sister Reach, explains that parents are vialed in their children knowledge of sex. “Parents ignorance toward sex is very bad for their children. Only explaining to young women how to use a pad or telling young men to use a condom isn’t enough.”

Sister Reach has many programs dedicated to teaching young people about sexual health. “We have programs where young women can come to building and ask professionals questions about what is happening with their bodies.”

Amelia Adams, 22, a college student, had her 5-year-old daughter when she was 17 years old. “My mom always offered to take me to a clinic to get birth control, but I was always embarrassed,” Adams said. “When it came to condoms, I assumed it was the guy’s responsibly to buy them.”

Even though Adams had previously discussed sex with her mother, she still didn’t feel fully prepared for the consequences of unprotected sex. “We never had a formal sex ed class in high school,” Adams said. “I only had the sex talk with my mother.”

Pregnancy is one of the leading causes of young women dropping out of school. About 30 percent of teenagers dropout of high school because they became pregnant, and 38 percent of these teenagers are African American females.

“When I got pregnant my junior year in high school, it was hard for me to keep up school during my pregnancy,” Adams said. “Then after I had my daughter, I tried to go back to school, but I ended up dropping out and getting my G.E.D. about a year later.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, less than 2 percent of teen mothers who begin college do not graduate.

After receiving her G.E.D, Adams enrolled in North West Community College in Mississippi. She finished the fall semester but could not continue due to work and lack of childcare.

“In the beginning, it was a lot to juggle school, work, and a two-year-old so I decide to take a break from school until I could get more help.”

Adams intends to try to educate her daughter about sex and the risks of unplanned pregnancy at an early and to keep an early dialogue about sex. She wants to also utilize any public resources that are available to help teach her daughter about her reproductive organs.

The mid-south area has a lot of resources for free birth control and tools to educate young African American women about sexual health. A Step Ahead  is a local organization that helps educate young women about birth control and sexual health. It also helps women get birth control such as the hormonal IUD or the implant. The Shelby County Health Department has free clinics in throughout Memphis including  Hickory Hill, Orange Mound, Downtown, and Collierville where young women, with or without insurance, can receive birth control and get tested for STDs, HIV, or pregnancy.

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