Preventable Calamity: How to Reduce Teenage Pregnancy
Sylvester, Kathleen, USA TODAY
All across America, young girls who still are children themselves are bearing children of their own. It is a calamity for these young mothers, because early motherhood denies them opportunities and choices; for their offspring, because most will grow up poor and without a father; and for the nation, because these youngsters are likely to repeat the tragic cycle of poverty and dysfunction into which they were born. However, it is a calamity that is preventable.
Compelling evidence now supports what most Americans long have understood intuitively. Family structure and lifestyle, as well as economics, influence how children turn out. Those of young, unmarried mothers fare badly, and society pays the cost. The equation is straightforward: As poverty is the most accurate predictor of teen pregnancy, teen pregnancy is a near certain predictor of poverty. Two-thirds of never married mothers raise their kids in poverty.
Children of unmarried teen mothers are far more likely than those of older, two parent families to fall behind and drop out of school, get into trouble with the law, abuse drugs and join gangs, have children of their own out of wedlock, and become dependent on welfare.
The situation is urgent. There are over 9,000,000 youngsters living in welfare families. As they reach adolescence, many are "scripted" to repeat the lives of their parents. It is vital to intervene and break the cycle before those children, too, become parents too soon and create a new generation of disadvantage.
To reverse this cycle requires a categorical declaration by civic, moral, and community leaders that it is wrong--not simply foolish or impractical--for women and men to make babies they can not support emotionally and financially. It also is time to challenge the complacent view that having babies out of wedlock is simply a lifestyle choice, and that since all such preferences are equally valid, no behavior should be condemned. This stance is untenable in the face of compelling evidence that not all choices are equal in terms of their impact on youngsters, and that children need fathers as well as mothers.
Massive Federal spending on remedial programs is not the solution; neither is castigating teen mothers, cutting off their welfare checks, and moving their offspring into orphanages. Government's role is not to insulate individuals from the consequences of their behavior or from the values of their communities.
Nothing short of a sustained national campaign can reverse the trend that has allowed teen pregnancy and early childbearing to become a crisis. Government can play a limited, but critical role in such a campaign.
Pres. Clinton must begin a national conversation about unmarried teenage pregnancy by declaring unequivocally that it is morally wrong because children are endangered. Parents, communities. schools, and churches must join the President and affirm a point on which most Americans agree- unmarried teenagers should not be having kids. The goal of this national campaign should be ambitious: reducing the pregnancy rate of 117 per 1,000 teens by five percent a year over the next decade.
Government merely is a catalyst. The real capacity to reverse the trend in teenage pregnancy rests with communities. The President should challenge them to set their own goals for reducing teen pregnancy and let each devise its own strategies. If Federal funds are offered, they should be matched by private-sector contributions and in-kind contributions from communities.
The President must challenge the media to join the campaign. This is not a call for censorship; it is a call for truth-telling. In American culture, children and teenagers learn from music and television as well as from parents, schools, and churches. Yet, teenagers are less able than adults to differentiate their own lives from the fantasies portrayed on television. MTV and soap operas depict rich and beautiful characters who indulge in endless sexual encounters, usually without adverse consequences. …