A new public service campaign targeting teen pregnancy is kicking up controversy among Mexican sexual educators and doctors. Even supporters call the government’s teen sex campaign slogan, at best, “vague” or “not concrete.” At worst, some say it subtly advocates abstinence and makes sex seem scary—a controversial approach to public health in a country with a strong tradition of division between church and state.

The campaign’s message: “A pregnancy before 20 years of age possesses greater risks for your health.”

Gabriela García Mejía, a coordinator for the Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Mexico, believes that teen pregnancy does possess real health risks, but rather than worrying teens, campaigns should be focusing on contraception. Her organization always speaks about the “exercising of your sexuality, as something positive,” she says.

“It's very important not to stigmatize the subject of sexual relations,” says García Mejía.

The declaration about “greater risks,” which headlines advertisements in bus stations, newspapers and other spots, also appears in television and radio spots as part of a larger script, which mentions one form of contraception: “I always use a condom. But there are other options for not getting pregnant.” (Some print advertisements also include part of this script in smaller print.)

Some interpret the campaign’s tone and ambiguity as discouraging sex.

“It’s very focused in abstinence, not in a direct way, but it’s left understood,” said Luz Rodea Saldívar, a coordinator with Choose, a youth activism organization. “It’s completely insufficient.”

Gabriela Rodríguez, director of Tributaries, a sex education organization, says that, until recently, the country always enforced a very clear division between church and state, paving the way for “very strong” family planning campaigns during the latter 20th century.  

Overall, female contraception use rose from 30.2 percent to 68.5 percent from 1976 to 1997, according to studies from Mexico’s National Population Council. (Growth has since slowed, climbing four percentage points to 72.5 in 2009.)

The teen pregnancy rate dropped from 119 pregnancies for every 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in 1982, to 69.5 children for every 1,000 teens according to a 2009 survey.

Rodríguez says the term “abstinence” barely circulated in Mexico until the National Action Party came into power in 2000. Then came a planned public health campaign, led with help from Ana Cristina Fox, then-President Vicente Fox’s daughter, which many believed was essentially the government promoting abstinence.

Following protests from sexual health leaders, the campaign was cancelled, said José Ángel Aguilar Gil, a doctor with the organization, Democracy and Sex.  

Yet the concept, says Rodríguez, remained. Now, various congressional representatives and governors employ abstinence-only language, she says. “We’ve imported this campaign that Reagan began and President [George W.] Bush also promoted.”

Nonetheless, Rodríguez doesn’t see a message of abstinence in the latest campaign, saying, “I approve of it totally.”  Aguilar Gil also called it “well-done,” praising that it mentioned condoms and appeared on television.

But like other experts, they wonder why it didn’t arrive sooner and had difficulty recalling the last campaign.

“I think that a lot of time has passed,” he says Aguilar Gil. “I imagine that it's about 15 years.”

Actually, it has been 17 years since the Ministry of Health launched a family planning campaign. In that time, contraception use dropped amongst female teens, ages 15-19, for the first time in 30 years. Between 1976 and 1997, contraception use within this age group rose from 14.2 percent to 45 percent, but then in 2006, it fell to 39.4 percent, according to the same population studies.

Responding to that, the Ministry of Health launched a teen sexual health program in 2007, aimed at involving wide-ranging federal departments and centers in increasing contraception use, says Olga Georgina Martínez Montañez, general director of the National Center for Gender Equity and Reproductive Health, one of the public offices behind the teen pregnancy campaign. By 2009, contraception use had rebounded to 44.7 percent.

Martínez Montañez says the campaign’s slogan about health concerns was chosen because, according to studies: “In Mexico, the population responds when you give them a message that speaks about the two things – the benefits and the risks.”

She says the purpose of the campaign was to reintroduce teenagers to public sexual health services, both in health centers and through Planificatel, a telephone service providing reproductive health advice.

“The knowledge of contraception methods of the population, including adolescents, is very high,” says Martínez Montañez, yet teens are not taking advantage of services. Indeed, 97 percent of 15 to 19-year-old Mexican women knew of at least one contraception method in 2009, according to the same study.

When it came to describing the actual “greater” health risks for teens, experts explained that teens often don’t seek the medical attention they require for various reasons: because they lack an adult sense of responsibility, or perhaps because, in rural areas, clinics are far away.  There’s also a psychological toll taken when teens drop out of school, losing future educational and work opportunities. Martínez Montañez also pointed out that women stop growing and maturing at age 20.

Perla Vázquez, also from Choose, sees a possible political motivation in the campaign. With one year left before elections, is the government just trying to show it cares about this issue by spending on expensive television spots? “This discourse,” she explains “says nothing new. They don’t give you alternative content.”

Ruth Samuelson is a freelance writer living in Mexico City. She can be reached at ruth.samuelson@gmail.com.

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