County freeholders usually deal with issues such as tax rates and road paving, but now the national issue of abortion could affect whether a women's health clinic in Hammonton will continue to get funds for reproductive health care.
In 2013, as in previous years, Atlantic County freeholders unanimously voted to allow Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey clinic space in the county building in Hammonton and compensate them $10,000 for reproductive health services, which include prenatal care and teenage pregnancy counseling. Abortions are not conducted at the Hammonton site.
The funding is part of a focus on improving children's health after Atlantic County had one of the highest rates of infant mortality, teenage pregnancy and lack of early prenatal care in the state, ranking 20th, last and 18th out of 21 counties in those categories in 2010, according to the children's heath report Kids Count.
But the freeholders' vote to help fund the clinic became a campaign issue in last year's Republican primary for an at-large freeholder seat, when Will Pauls criticized then-Freeholder Joseph McDevitt for his vote. Pauls won the primary and was elected freeholder in November.
Now Pauls said he has had "no change in opinion" in his position from his campaign not to fund the clinic.
"The issue was, do they tell somebody where they can go for an abortion," Pauls said. "If they will still tell people about abortion, my answer is (no). ... But it's really hard for me to answer until I have a resolution in front of me."
At least one Republican freeholder who had voted in favor last year, Frank Sutton, said he might not vote the same way this year.
"I'm actually against abortion and would be against (funding)," Sutton said. "When it comes up again, it will be researched again."
Republican Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica, meanwhile, said he "would probably vote to fund it again."
"I only speak for myself," Formica said. "But I can tell you that Atlantic County historically has had a poor rating in Kids Count, ranking 19th or 20th or 21st" out of 21 counties. "One of the largest issues is teen pregnancy, and the figures are daunting. A lot has to do with prenatal, while pregnant and post-natal care."
Planned Parenthood, Formica said, "has been assisting with the county for counseling for teens. That (county) money is not used to perform or subsidize abortions. Myself as a Roman Catholic, growing up the way I did, I had to make a decision here. ... I'm not going to say the right of any pregnant woman should be my decision. From my aspect, the resolution to come up with funds for the organization improves the quality of life for children here in Atlantic County."
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the funding "did become a controversy. But that's something the freeholders are going to have to kick around and decide. We do have an epidemic of teen pregnancy. (But) I want to make clear that the clinic in Hammonton does not do abortions. The (issue) was that it's Planned Parenthood, and if you support Planned Parenthood, then there are clinics where Planned Parenthood does. But once again, it will be placed before the freeholder board, and they'll have to make a decision on it."
Lynn Brown, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey, said the group was approached by the county Health Department and asked whether it would assist with women's health programs and services."
"And we're starting to see some difference in terms of adolescent pregnancy," Brown said.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which used data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 in Atlantic County has decreased from 44 to 36, improving the county's statewide ranking from 20th out of 21 in 2010 to 15th in 2013.
Cumberland County still ranked last in 2013, with 70 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19, while Cape May County ranked just ahead of Atlantic County at 14th.
The 2010 ranking uses data from 2000 to 2006, and 2013's ranking uses data from 2004 to 2010.
"It's always been an issue, no matter where criticism is coming from, that politicians do not understand important public health issues," Brown said. "Adolescent pregnancy is a serious public-health issue. And ultimately, many young girls with adolescent or early pregnancies find it truncates their futures, educationally, economically and socially."
Regarding the reproductive health services at the Hammonton clinic, "For anyone of any political (persuasion) to argue it isn't a valid and good and important public health service, I disagree. It's just the right thing to do for adolescents to keep them healthy."
Suzanne Sawyer, director of operations for the South Jersey Perinatal Cooperative, said the location in Hammonton is important for teens to be able to access reproductive and counseling services.
"Teens accessing any health care is difficult, because many of them don't drive," Sawyer said. "As a public health issue, it's important teens have access to health care. It (deals with) sexually transmitted diseases and goes way beyond pregnancy."
Pat Diamond, director of the Atlantic County Division of Public Health, said that besides the funding for Planned Parenthood, the county also awarded $62,777 via a state grant to a completely separate program designed to improve access to reproductive health care, the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, which provides counseling services to at-risk teens and was awarded to a bid from Inwood House in 2013.
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2013 teen birth rate per 1,000 females ages 15-19, ranked by county
Ranking County Teen births Teen population Teen birth rate
11 Ocean 2,291 115,562 20
14 Cape May 608 21,096 29
15 Atlantic 2,408 66,385 36
21 Cumb. 2,589 36,790 70