In Iowa, the numbers are staggering. Half of the state's pregnancies are unplanned. When considering only 18- and 19-year-olds who become pregnant, that statistic jumps to 72 percent. What's worse, those numbers have remained stagnant for years. "When I learned these figures, I was shocked," said former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack during a phone interview today. "I have to think that many other Iowans will be shocked as well."
Vilsack's shock prompted action this morning in Des Moines when she launched the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies, a program focused on overall awareness and helping women between the ages of 18 and 30 receive family planning information. While the group will not provide contraception and services directly, it does intended to partner with existing groups that do and, hopefully, prompt the public to request funding for such services from the state legislature. In order to fulfill it's mission of reducing unintended pregnancies, the Iowa Initiative will partner with the University of Northern Iowa to employ "a number of exciting, cutting-edge social marketing techniques," exact details to be released in upcoming weeks.
"This is a real opportunity," an excited Vilsack said of her position as executive director. "I feel like I got the perfect job and now I can focus on one issue I really care about."
The position came to Vilsack by way of the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which has provided $1.5 million to fund the program. The foundation, named for the late wife of Nebraska investor Warren Buffett, is known for providing scholarships to Nebraska youth and outstanding teacher awards. The late Buffett, who died unexpectedly in July 2004, was a civil rights and contraceptive advocate.
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Vilsack, who has spent her adult life working for and on behalf of the state's adolescents, said the program is extension of what she's already accomplished.
"Everything I've done in my life is about empowering young people to make wise decisions and giving them the tools to do that," Vilsack said in a telephone interview today. "Everything I've done has been about building things and being creative — building something from the beginning and working with adolescents, particularly adolescent women to build physically and emotionally healthy women. I think that's at the heart of a strong society."
According to the Guttmacher Institute, only half of Iowa counties have at least one family planning clinic. The institute, a national, non-profit group that tracks reproductive health services, determined there are 327,580 women in Iowa who are in need of contraceptive services and supplies. Iowa is ranked overall in 36th place in terms of how well the state is meeting existing needs for subsidized contraceptive services and supplies, whether laws and policies are likely to facilitate access to contraceptives and information, and the extent to which the state devotes its own revenues to support delivery of publicly supporter contraceptives and services. Iowa ranks 48th in the nation for making family planning services available.
"As a woman, teacher and mother, I believe we have a responsibility to give every woman in the state the knowledge and means to prevent pregnancy," Vilsack said.
Reducing unintended pregnancy, she said, may also reduce the number of abortions in the state. Currently, between 10 and 12 percent of all pregnancies in Iowa end in abortion.
Vilsack praised the state legislature for passing a bill last year that called for all sex education in Iowa schools to be medically- and scientifically-based.
"There is federally money that comes [into Iowa] for abstinence education, but we know that abstinence education doesn't work," she said. "Fourteen states so far have refused that federal money. That's pretty amazing because states, when they can get federal money, like to take it. But since abstinence programs don't work, there's now a movement among states to just decline the money — although Iowa has not."
Iowa receives money through two abstinence streams — Title V, Section 510 and the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (Family Youth Services Bureau). The Title V monies — just over $300,000 per year — are given to the State Department of Health for abstinence advocacy and redistribution to other groups. The other stream is a new addition to the state and came in the form of a $600,000 non-matching grant to Bethany Christian Services of Northwest Iowa.
Vilsack is currently in the process of staffing the organization's offices, located at 300 E. Locust St. in Des Moines' East Village. She is also joined by a board of 10 that includes health care professionals, businesswomen, people of faith and former legislators. In the coming months, Vilsack intends to speak to various civic and social groups about the organization and its mission.
"[Unintended pregnancy] touches an emotional chord," she said. "I think in every room that I speak in, those listening are going to think of someone they know who's affected by this issue. I think it is a conversation we need to have, and one that will maybe make some people uncomfortable. But, we need to talk about it because it is impacting individuals, it is impacting communities and it is also impacting taxpayers. For young teenagers, it is costing taxpayers over $80 million dollars a year. We don't know what the costs are for 18- to 30-year-olds."