The Monitor's View

The rise in teen moms

A rise in teen pregnancies – after years of decline – needs more than a political fight.

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One of the best signals for what is worst in American society is child births – by children. After dropping for 14 years, the birth rate among 15- to 19-year-olds suddenly went up in 2006 and, based on new figures, rose again in 2007. Even if the trend reverses, ways to curb teen pregnancy have once again become a topic for debate.

With Democrats now in charge in Washington, the long, bitter struggle between those pushing only sexual-abstinence programs and those emphasizing contraceptive education will likely lean toward the latter. President Obama and Congress have already cut aid to sexual-abstinence programs – the current federal favorite – and plan to do more.

The harsh intensity of that fight implies there are easy answers to this national challenge (the US far outranks other developed nations in teen births). But there are no easy answers. Even the most effective programs only reduce risky sexual behavior among teens by about one-third.

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And in fact, teens may not take any type of sex education seriously if adults fight over it.

One specialist, Dr. Douglas Kirby, writes in a report on sex-education programs for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy: "Communities need to send clear, consistent messages about appropriate sexual behavior. Not every organization in a community needs to advocate every method of reducing the risk of teen pregnancy and [sexually transmitted diseases], but it is important that organizations avoid sending conflicting messages to young people."

He adds that a focus on one particular method doesn't in itself send conflicting messages – "unless organizations denigrate each other's approaches."

What is needed is that all those concerned unite more in dealing with the many factors causing teen pregnancy. These include poverty, drugs, fatherless homes, and domestic abuse. One reason to unite: The yearly cost in public services for a teen mother is about $4,080.

Then there is America's sexualized culture – reflected in public attention to the teen births by Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears, or the film "Juno." (One poll shows teens want the media to talk more about the consequences of sex.) Another influence on girls is the role model they see in single women having or adopting babies. Four out of 10 births are now to unwed mothers – a record high – with most of those women more than 20 years old.

And one overlooked issue is that the male in a "teen pregnancy" is usually more than 20 years old. Why aren't prosecutors going after these statutory rapists?

With each individual teen, parents need to find better ways to talk about sex and make better efforts to instill high values. Girls sometimes see a strategic benefit to early motherhood. One study published found teen moms can earn more in later life and eventually obtain a high school education – more than similar teens who delayed babymaking until their 20s. Still, that doesn't take into account the effects on children of being raised without a father.

More than sex education, it is an unconditional love for each teen, even with a pregnancy, that will help them gain control and maturity – and also help America reverse this trend.

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