The Invisible Fathers

AMID all the handwringing and finger-pointing that accompany most discussions about teenage pregnancy, one key player is consistently absent and strangely absolved: the father. It is as if adolescent mothers - some as young as 11 - conceive their babies alone.

Now a new national study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute spotlights those invisible males. Half the fathers of babies born to girls between the ages of 15 and 17 are at least 20 or older, the institute reports. Twenty percent are six or more years older than the young mothers. Other studies on state levels have shown similar patterns.

In most states these relationships constitute statutory rape, which goes largely unpunished. Some sex-abuse experts point out that many girls who become pregnant have been sexually assaulted at some point.

A failure to focus on fathers leaves teen mothers shouldering all the blame and responsibility. It also makes young mothers vulnerable to punitive attitudes in the debate over welfare reform. Many members of Congress believe the issue of out-of-wedlock births is at the root of the welfare crisis. Some want to prevent states from giving benefits to unmarried teenagers or from increasing benefits to those who have another baby.

One of the provisions in the 14-point American Family Values Agenda that President Clinton unveiled late last month calls for a national crusade against teenage pregnancy. At a time when the rate of teen pregnancy in the United States is about six times higher than in European nations, and when unwed teen mothers make up the core of long-term welfare recipients, such a crusade would be welcome.

Yet it must go beyond rhetoric and include specific efforts to hold men responsible for their actions, through such measures as increased paternity identification and child support. In California, as another partial solution, Gov. Pete Wilson wants to set aside $2.4 million of a proposed $12 million teen pregnancy prevention initiative for prosecuting adult men who engage in sex with girls under 18.

Teenage pregnancy, with all its long-term ramifications, defies easy fixes. But mothers and young children should not be the only ones to bear the consequences of too-early parenthood. Until fathers are also held accountable, attempts to reduce high teen birth rates will continue to be marked by good intentions and inadequate policies. The next generation deserves better.

A failure to focus on fathers leaves teen mothers shouldering all the blame and responsibility.

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