Blacks now addressing teen pregnancy

THE scandal of teen-age pregnancy is finally being recognized as a serious threat to the very survival of blacks as viable members of American society. Even sterilization of recidivistic welfare mothers is seriously, if only quietly, discussed among blacks as an option to stem the spiraling cycle of young unwed mothers. Civil rights organizations such as the Urban League and the NAACP have placed teen-age pregnancy at the top of their domestic agendas. After years of benign neglect, we blacks now are beginning to view the crisis in the context of black responsibility. For many years blacks were wary of addressing the issue publicly for fear of playing into the hands of reactionary racists. The near universal black rejection of the Moynihan Report on the black family a decade ago reflected this sensitivity. The correlation between the indignities of slavery, racial discrimination, the economic and social degradation of the urban ghetto, and the disintegration of the black nuclear family is, for many, simply too painful to address publicly. However, as the terrible consequences of such silence become appallingly clear, the reluctance to speak out recedes.

The recent furor over the dispensation of contraceptives at DuSable High School in Chicago proves that the black community is at least coming to grips with the fact that the problem requires drastic and urgent attention. Ten years ago the focus would have been upon how to best accommodate young unwed mothers; the DuSable debate focused on prevention. While most commentators debated the wisdom of the school's involvement in dispensing contraceptives, they ignored the more significant fact that the entirety of the controversy centered upon how to prevent teen-age pregnancy. This shift in emphasis is extremely important, because it reveals that blacks are willing to assume some responsibility for the crisis.

In this writer's opinion, one of the greatest errors of the black movement of the late '60s and early '70s was its insistent claim that any form of birth control was merely a thinly veiled attempt at ``black genocide.'' At its most strident, this rhetoric of revolution actually encouraged an increasing birthrate among blacks. Yet even in its more lucid moments the consequences of such polemics were hardly benign.

In 1984 the birthrate among black American teen-agers was the highest in the industrialized world, and 55 percent of all black births were to unwed mothers. At the same time 47 percent of all black families were headed by women and half of all welfare payments went to unwed teen-age mothers. Clearly the problem of teen-age pregnancy is one of epidemic proportions in the black community.

During the heady days of the Great Society the emphasis was upon the creation of an ever-increasing array of social programs to provide more pre- as well as post-natal care services for unwed mothers. In the rush to deal more humanely with young indigent mothers, society unwittingly began to eviscerate the concept of responsibility. Gradually the notion of accepting responsibility for the consequences of one's actions was subordinated to the belief that one was entitled as a matter of right to certain ``essential'' services.

For example, until 20 years ago most pregnant teens were not permitted to remain in public schools. This policy was reversed on the grounds that it served to penalize a teen mother while the putative teen father was permitted to continue his education with impunity. Additionally, it was felt that society would undoubtedly be better served if the teen mother was at least given the opportunity to become a productive member of society. Moreover critics of the earlier policy argued that it was unduly punitive in that its purpose was to express society's moral outrage by demonstrably stigmatizing the errant teen mother.

Yet, hasn't an essential component of deterrence always been to demonstrate society's ``moral outrage'' by punitive measures? Is not one of the greatest requirements of organized society to impose rules of normative behavior? Of course the point here is not to urge a return to Victorian morality, but to suggest that we have tipped the scales too far in the wrong direction. Perhaps it is important to have immediately measurable disincentives to early motherhood.

This point was made vigorously earlier this year in the black women's magazine, Essence, by a female writer strongly criticizing the organizers of a black beauty pageant for rescinding a rule barring pregnant young women from participating in the contest. Her most compelling argument was summed up in the penetrating question, ``. . . do we want to celebrate unwed pregnant teens?''

The question is not an idle one restricted to beauty pageants. Since the relaxation of rules governing pregnant teen students, many school boards across the nation have had to consider whether pregnant teen students can be inter alia, prom queens, National Merit Scholars, and/or class valedictorians. In black urban schools the question must not be reduced to the ``rights'' of the pregnant teen, but rather the nature and kind of role models the schools produce.

Virtually every survey of minority teen mothers reveals that the vast majority either wanted to become mothers or at the very least were not ashamed or disappointed at their early pregnancy. Quite simply, in the black communities most severly affected by the epidemic of teen pregnancies, the very victims of this pernicious cycle do not see themselves as victimized! One of the reasons they do not is that the negative aspects of their condition are not apparent until later -- not much later -- but later. In short, what they readily see or perceive are the incentives: peer acceptance; emancipation from parental control; an apartment, and welfare check of their own.

Thus if there is any hope of reversing this trend, it is necessary for the disincentives to immediately visit themselves upon the consciousness of the potential victims. In at least one case a teen mother was dissuaded from further pregnancies because the teen father bought her cloth diapers rather than disposable ones. It's amazing how quickly the glamour of early motherhood evaporates under a cloud of dirty diapers.

The primary responsibility for dealing with black teen-age pregnancy rests with the black community. The task is neither painless nor pleasant, because it involves reasserting the primacy of certain moral values over debilitating cultural ones which have taken on a life of their own. We must stop celebrating teen parenthood either by acclamation or acquiescence, and the message must be hammered home not just to the at-risk females, but most especially to our at-risk males. Young black males must be made to understand the crucial distinction between fatherhood and manhood.

It is clear that the crisis of black teen pregnancy cannot be solved in the absence of a concerted effort by society at large to address the entrenched problems of unemployment, inadequate schooling, housing, and crime. The horrendous conditions in which the underclass is compelled to subsist are major actors in this vicious cycle of unwed mothers. But the time has come for blacks to assume the responsibility of taking the first step in addressing a problem that threatens our very existence as anything other than a permanently dependent underclass in America.

Preston Greene teaches political science at DePaul University, Chicago.

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