Cause of Bountiful’s high teen pregnancy rate debated
by JAMES KELLER
The high number of teenage pregnancies in Bountiful, B.C., may be linked to the community's fundamentalist Mormon religion and its isolation rather than polygamy itself, a lawyer suggested in court Wednesday.
The court heard evidence Wednesday that of the births that B.C.’s Vital Statistics Agency was able to link to the polygamous commune, 10 per cent were to girls 18 and under. That’s much higher than the provincial figure of about 3 per cent.
But Tim Dickson, a court-appointed lawyer who’s arguing that the polygamy law is unconstitutional, suggested those statistics don’t prove polygamy itself leads to teen births.
Rather, he suggested other isolated religious communities could be also expected to have an increase in teen pregnancies.
“One way that religion might be expected to increase teen pregnancy relative to other communities is that if the religious norms of that community are effective in discouraging contraception, or less effective in discouraging teen sex,” said Mr. Dickson, who was questioning the B.C.’s Vital Statistics Agency official who compiled the birth data.
“Another way that religion might be expected to increase teen births relative to other communities is by discouraging abortions.”
A landmark case examining the constitutionality of Canada’s law against polygamy has spent more than two months hearing experts, former residents and current plural wives debate whether polygamy is inherently harmful.
Much of that evidence has focused on life in Bountiful, where residents follow a fundamentalist form of Mormonism that, unlike the mainstream church, still encourages polygamy.
Among the alleged harms associated with polygamy are teenage pregnancies and marriage.
Mr. Dickson pointed to a U.S. study released in 2009 that examined teen pregnancy rates in U.S. states that are considered highly religious.
The study found states with large numbers of religious conservatives such as Mississippi had higher teen pregnancy rates, and the study’s authors suggested that was because those religions discourage birth control.
Mr. Dickson also noted provincial government data from other small, isolated communities in B.C., as well as aboriginal communities, indicate they, too, have high teen pregnancy rates.
In the tiny northern village of Hazelton, for example, teen births to mothers under 20 account for 22 per cent of all live births, more than five times the provincial figure.
Bruce Klette of the Vital Statistics Agency examined birth records for Bountiful and surrounding areas and identified births linked to mothers and fathers from the commune. He also attempted to single out cases in which one man fathered children with multiple wives.
Using a combination of birth certificates, education records and a list of surnames that appear to be specific to Bountiful, Mr. Klette identified 833 births to 215 mothers and 142 fathers.
Of those, 85 births – or about 10 per cent – were born to girls aged 18 or under. More than a quarter of the community's teen mothers had at least two children before they turned 19.
Mr. Klette cautioned that his data didn’t capture all of the births in the community, because he excluded records if he couldn’t be sure they were linked to Bountiful residents.
He also noted he wasn’t able to calculate the actual teen pregnancy rate, which would compare the number of teen births to the total number of teenagers in the community. He noted Bountiful may have a disproportionate number of teenagers, which would artificially inflate the percentage of teen births.
Mr. Klette was the final witness to appear at the hearings. The case is now on hold until the end of March, when closing arguments are scheduled to begin.
Chief Justice Robert Bauman noted the vast amount of testimony and evidence he’s heard since the beginning of December.
“Congratulations,” he told the dozen or so lawyers in court on Wednesday. “We have an incredible record to base final submissions on.”
Earlier in the week, Judge Bauman agreed to allow the final arguments to be filmed for television and Internet broadcasts – a rare request in Canadian courts and the first time in B.C. that legal proceedings will be streamed to the Web.
The B.C. government launched the reference case after the failed prosecution of Bountiful’s two leaders. Winston Blackmore and James Oler were each charged with practising polygamy in 2009, but those charges were later thrown out on technical grounds.
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