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Published June 18, 2010, 12:18 AM

North Dakota teen abortion stats surprise state legislators

BISMARCK – About 1,600 North Dakota teenagers had abortions in the state during a 10-year period ending in 2008.

By: Teri Finneman, Forum Communications Co., INFORUM

BISMARCK – About 1,600 North Dakota teenagers had abortions in the state during a 10-year period ending in 2008.

The state Health Department data surprised some lawmakers during the interim Health and Human Services Committee meeting this week.

“I was shocked. I always am. We’ve heard the numbers through the years, but I just don’t know the solution,” said Rep. Vonnie Pietsch, R-Casselton.

“We like to think that we’re so much smarter now, that kids are more aware of what’s going on in the world and everything, but it’s still the questions and the conversations that happen in your home.”

The Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo is required to provide the state with basic statistical information on the abortions it performs. It is the only abortion clinic in the state.

Cass County residents had the most abortions, with 485 performed on women ages 19 and younger from 1999 to 2008.

Grand Forks County residents had 202 abortions, Stutsman County 49 and Stark County 38.

The total number of annual teenage abortions in the state has fluctuated throughout the past 10 years, with 185 in 1999 and 160 in 2008.

Rep. Louise Potter, D-Grand Forks, was surprised by the numbers, saying they could be higher because the data doesn’t reflect North Dakota women who have the procedure done out of state.

“I was also surprised that the numbers in the last few years were going down and now they seem to be going up again and why might that be,” she said.

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said there wasn’t any particular issue that prompted the abortion reports to legislators. The testimony was part of a periodic update that lawmakers receive on the alternatives to abortion program, she said.

Red River Women’s Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker was not at Wednesday’s legislative meeting.

She said Thursday that the teenage data provided to lawmakers included adults ages 18 and 19. Minors are less than 10 percent of the clinic’s patient population, Kromenaker said.

The clinic saw 81 minors in 2009, 71 in 2008 and 87 in 2007, according to data provided by Kromenaker.

In North Dakota, a minor must have parental consent to have an abortion or prove in juvenile court that she is informed enough to have an abortion without her parents knowing and/or giving consent.

Kromenaker said many of the abortions listed as judicial bypass did have one parent involved. The law requires consent from both parents, so judicial bypass can be used in the case of an absent parent, she said.

“It’s very rare that a minor does not involve an adult of some sort,” Kromenaker said.

She would like to see North Dakota do more to reduce unintended pregnancies.

“If we can all work together to work on some of those proven programs that show results, that should be how everybody works toward preventing teen pregnancies,” she said.

North Dakota has one of the lowest rates of teen births in the nation, though the issue is still a concern, said Kim Senn of the state Health Department.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said lawmakers need to look at money the state spends on alternatives to abortion programs and begin focusing on evidence-based practices.

“I’m a little bit concerned that we might be taking this chunk of money and just saying, ‘Please do good things,’ ” he said. “I just think whenever we spend state money we ought to make sure there is some sort of expectation that it meets a certain level of expertise and outcome.”

Lee said there is still work to do, too.

“It’s hard because you don’t know what you can’t measure, which is how many people didn’t get pregnant or didn’t have an abortion,” she said. “It’s really kind of a murky picture. If it was easy, we’d have fixed it already.”

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.