Reducing Teen Pregnancy

Recent federal surveys show that sexual activity among teens is down - the first decline in 30 years. That's encouraging. Still, statistics on teen pregnancies are staggering: Forty percent of young women in the US become pregnant by age 20. Most are unmarried. So much more needs to be done about this "uniquely American dilemma," as former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean calls it.

Though it's taken a long time getting off the ground, that "more" could come partly in the form of an independent, nonprofit effort headed by Mr. Kean and economist Isabel Sawhill. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy's ambitious (and, we think, achievable) goal is to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate by one-third by 2005. In the process, its leaders wisely will try to avoid debates over abortion and contraception and concentrate on the task at hand.

Part of that task is to learn what programs work, to spread the word, and to work to replicate them throughout the country. Already we know the best programs are comprehensive, age-appropriate, culturally sensitive, and well funded. California, for example, last month introduced an advertising campaign emphasizing the difficult consequences of single-motherhood. State and private contributions are expected to pay for $22 million in TV commercials. The ads end with a phone number directing callers to services for teenagers.

This kind of public education and outreach can be effective. But it can't end there. A guidebook by the Department of Health and Human Services sums up well the important elements of any pregnancy prevention program. It should: stress abstinence and personal responsibility; help teens make plans to move their lives forward; make sure adult mentors are involved in children's lives; bring together schools, businesses, and religious organizations; and maintain a long-term commitment to teens.

President Clinton says he wants to see programs like this in every community. We do too. Progress is already being made, as evidenced by the decline in sexual activity. But there's more to do. The national campaign will provide the impetus, but the rest is up to young people themselves and the adults who care about them.

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