Written by Martha Kempner for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Last week, New York City’s Department of Health released numbers showing that teen pregnancy rates in the city have fallen considerably in the last decade. So for some reason, the New York Post, the city’s conservative home town paper decided it needed to stir up a fake controversy by suggesting that the Bloomberg administration is trying to keep the data on how much birth control schools have really distributed under wraps.

Health Commissioner Tom Farley certainly didn’t seem to have anything to hide when he hailed the city’s 27 percent decline in teen pregnancy. Farley suggested that the drop comes because fewer teens are having sex and more teens using birth control.

Farley said “It shows that when you make condoms and contraception available to teens, they don’t increase their likelihood of being sexually active. But they get the message that sex is risky.”

The commissioner is referring, in part, to the school district’s CATCH Program, Connecting Adolescents To Comprehensive Health, which uses Health Department doctors and school nurses to prescribe and distribute birth control to students. The program also provides pregnancy tests; education on contraceptive methods, including condoms; STI prevention education; education on pregnancy options and referrals to primary care; STI testing and treatment; and mental health counseling. The program started in 2011 with five schools and expanded to 13 schools by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.

The CATCH program made headlines at the start of the school year when a New York Post article said it was giving out Emergency Contraception to students has young as 14 without their parents’ knowledge. This was not accurate. The Health Department says that parents were made aware of the program and told them that they had the right to “opt-out” if they did not want their child to be allowed to receive contraception at school. Only one to two percent of parents at these schools chose to “opt-out.”

Despite this, the Post insisted the program was controversial and parental authority was being usurped. That article, which ran with the headline “NYC schools give out morning-after pills to students—without telling parents,” quoted one parent saying that she’d never been told about the program and that she wouldn’t want her daughter to have access to EC in the nurse’s office because “Parents should know if their daughter is pregnant.” The article also reports that school insiders “dislike the lack of parental involvement” because of the dangerous side effects of EC and quotes another school employee who said that she worries that EC might encourage careless sex. All of these quotes represent common misperception about EC: it prevents fertilization and therefore pregnancy, it is safe for young women, and it does not change sexual behavior.

This weekend, the Post continued its effort to make the CATCH program seem more controversial than it is when it ran an article with this first line: “Plan B has become Plan A in the Bloomberg administration’s stealth war on teen pregnancy.”  According to the article, the paper used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to find out exactly how many dose of EC were distributed at New York City schools last year. The FOIA request yielded the following data:

  • 22,400 students received reproductive health care between 2009 and the beginning of this school year
  • 40 separate school-based Health Centers doled out 12,721 doses of Plan B in 2011-12, up from 10,720 in 2010-11 and 5,039 in 2009-10

The article notes that this is far higher than the 547 doses of EC that the officials cited as having been handed out last September when they announced the expansion of the CATCH program.

Though the Post seems to be suggesting a big cover-up, the paper is, deliberately or not, mixing up its numbers. There are only 13 CATCH schools and the program didn’t start until 2011. The 40 school-based health centers in city schools that “doled out Plan B” are not part of the CATCH program. These health centers are privately run and have been distributing/prescribing contraception for a number of years.

And the city is not trying to hide the school-based health centers either.  In fact, a department spokesperson told me in an email that the CATCH program is:

A pilot program to see if we could provide the same essential services through regular school nurses and physicians in schools that don’t have school based health centers.

She described it as part of a comprehensive approach to reducing teen pregnancy in the city.  And the best part, it seems to have worked (or at least helped). The health department released these numbers:

  • The teen pregnancy rate for girls ages 15 to 19 was 72.6 per 1,000 in 2010 down from 98.8 per 1,000 in 2001.
  • There were about 19,080 teen pregnancies in 2010 down from 24,815 in 2001.
  • Sexual activity among high school students is down by 26 percent since 2001 when 50.9 percent of high school students reported having had sex compared to 37.8 percent in 2011.
  • More girls were using the Pill or other long-term birth control methods the last time they had sex up from 17.3 percent in 2009 (the first year it was collected) to 26.9 percent in 2011.

These data reflect national data that show the rates of teen sexual activity and pregnancy have been dropping in recent years. New York City’s teen pregnancy rate is still remains higher than the national rate but it has seen a steeper decline.

The teen pregnancy rates do vary widely in the city with the Bronx having significantly higher rates than other areas. In addition, the rates among Black adolescents (110.7 per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19) are much higher than those for Whites in the city (just 16 per 1,000). Teen pregnancy is a multi-faceted issue that is woven into the socio-economic fabric of communities, so it is not surprising that these disparities still exist. Nonetheless the dramatic reduction in teen pregnancy rates across the city shows that access to contraception is an important first step.

Instead of lauding the success of the city’s efforts, the Post just continued to claim the city is hiding the program. It even quoted one mother who suggested that the fact that the schools with CATCH Programs were in Black and Latino neighborhoods proved that they were part of an effort by Mayor Bloomberg to control the minority population.

This seems like irresponsible reporting to me. The program is in these neighborhoods because these neighborhoods have the highest rate of teen pregnancy. The program is not a secret.  Parents were informed and given how few “opted out,” most seemed to approve.  Moreover, the Health Department is lauding the program’s success pretty loudly. They told me in a statement:

Since 2009, birth control use has increased yet the rates of teen sexual activity and pregnancy continued to decline, sharply refuting the myth that access to information and birth control encourages sexual activity.

A more accurate headline would have been “Congratulations New York City for Helping Teens Prevent Pregnancy.”