Unlike the rest of the country, teen pregnancy in West Virginia is on the rise. And Lincoln County has one of the fastest rising rates in the country with approximately 20 to 25 known and presumed pregnancies out of 429 females in the county high school alone, not counting drop-outs, transfers and abortions.
What is more, at least 100 impregnated teens enroll in the county's WIC (Women and Infant Children) program annually. Some wear their babies as a badge of honor, posting photographs of their newborns on Facebook and other social networks.
Overall, West Virginia is one of only three states to declare record numbers of teen pregnancies from 2007 to 2010. Everywhere else, teen birth rates declined by at least 8 percent in 47 states and the District of Columbia to reach historic lows. And declines in 16 states ranged from 20 percent to 29 percent.
What's behind the reduced rates nationwide? The Centers for Disease Control claims that the effective use of prevention messages has helped stop teenage pregnancy. Increased use of contraception and use of two methods of birth control simultaneously (usually birth control pills and condoms) have been observed.
But in Lincoln County, school administrators confess that not all teachers are willing to provide sex education. School health educators do their best, but sex education is not uniform in all schools. "Our ... sex education in the county is terrible," says county school nurse Teresa Ryan.
If not the schools, why not the churches? Here's why not: Though 133 churches dot the landscape of a county of only 22,000 people, buzz about the birds and the bees seems verboten. "Nice girls save themselves for marriage," is about the only theme discussed in the churches, according to Dr. Loren Smith, Lincoln County's chief medical officer.
Very few pastors seem willing to go beyond the idea of abstinence, Smith says, even though the cost of unplanned pregnancies to taxpayers is skyrocketing. Nationwide, significant public costs are associated with teen childbearing, estimated at $10.9 billion annually. The cost to West Virginia is about $67 million, part of which is paid by Lincoln countians. One out of every four teen moms in West Virginia goes on welfare within three years of her child's birth.
The county does dispense condoms and birth control pills. "But that's not enough to curb the problem of teen pregnancy," says Dr. Smith, who is trying to enlist the help of ministers in local churches to reach out to families with young females of child-bearing age.
Rural churches in the traditionally fundamentalist communities in Appalachia are not only reluctant to bring up sex, they are adamant about not discussing condoms and birth control specifically and sexual relations generally among teenagers. Yet saving taxpayer money and preventing tragedies among unwitting children giving birth to children seems a worthy moral and religious cause, Dr. Smith believes. "Just say no," is one message," he says, "but it is not the only message."
Rabel, of Lincoln County, is a retired Emmy Award winning television journalist formerly with NBC and CBS.