King County now has the second-lowest teenage birth rate in the nation — second only to the Boston metropolitan area. And a huge part of that drop happened in the past few years, according to new numbers released Wednesday by Planned Parenthood and Public Health – Seattle & King County. Between 2008 and 2015, the percentage of teen births in King County fell from more than 21 percent to less than 10.
Also during that window: Nearly 40,000 women of reproductive age got health insurance for the first time.
“We may find out more as time goes on,” says King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who chairs the Health, Housing and Human Services Committee, but the two main factors that have clearly contributed to the drop so far are that more women have been able to get coverage under the ACA, which mandates coverage of contraceptive care, and that more have had access to long-term contraceptives, like IUDs. “Especially for lower income women, the progress has been very significant,” she adds. Before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, more than a third of low-income women in King County had no health insurance; afterward, that number dropped to 13 percent.
As for why King County and Boston are topping the charts in teen pregnancy reduction, Kohl-Welles can only speculate. But one thing King County has that Boston doesn’t, she says, is Best Starts for Kids, an initiative that created, among other things, a number of school-based health centers that provide all kinds of preventive health care for teens, including contraceptives.
Kohl-Welles served as a Washington state senator for 21 years before she came to the King County Council, and has long placed women’s health care and women’s rights among her top priorities. What strikes her now is the relentless attacks on those rights. “What’s so amazing to me is that his has been so cyclical,” she says, almost exasperated. When she was a senator, “Every few years, we’d get these efforts to defund any type of preventive care associated with reproductive health — these bills to prohibit talking about abortion as one option for people.” She fought “a huge battle in the senate” about six years ago, for example, to pass a bill that required any family planning counseling in Washington to be based on science and evidence, not belief. “To me, it just makes sense: you want to give accurate information to kids — particularly kids.”
Also a mandate under the Affordable Care Act: No one can be charged more for health insurance or care based on their gender. Believe it or not, that “was standard practice before the ACA,” she says. “In Washington, we had to pass legislation to make sure women were not being charged more than men.” If the ACA is indeed under threat — as well as Planned Parenthood, which provides health care services to some 28,000 people in King County, including cancer screenings, HPV vaccines, and help quitting smoking — “there’s a lot to lose. I don’t think we need to step backwards on that.”
“Nothing can replace Planned Parenthood and the health services they provide, and it’s unconscionable for Congress and the White House to even consider reducing access to birth control and preventive health care,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in a statement released Wednesday. “Together, King County and Planned Parenthood have made great strides in improving women’s health, and we won’t stop now. We will continue to fight for family planning services as a matter of social and economic justice, and plain common sense.”
The federal climate right now, especially with regard to the above, “seems ridiculous,” says Kohl-Welles. “It really does.” But, echoing Constantine, “we owe it to our constituents to fight for them,” she says. “We’re doing pretty well here — very well. We don’t want to give that up.”