The Teen-Age Parent Trap

A FEW weeks ago, after a 12-year-old girl in Washington, D.C., told her 14-year-old boyfriend she was pregnant, the two discussed abortion. As they argued, he shot her with a handgun - accidentally, he claimed - and two hours later she died. As if to compound the tragedy, an autopsy revealed that the girl was not pregnant, as she had believed.

Elsewhere in Washington last month, a 16-year-old girl from Blanchard, Okla., gave birth to a baby boy in the bathroom of a Senate office building during a student tour of the Capitol.

And in the small town of Logan, W. Va., the 1988-89 high school yearbook includes an unusual feature: a special section on teen-age parents. By one count nearly 40 students in the school are either pregnant or have had at least one child.

Yet except for unusual cases like these, teen-age pregnancy receives far less media coverage today than it did a few years ago, when it was a favorite subject for magazine covers and TV documentaries. As a social issue needing attention, pregnancy has been overshadowed by two other urgent adolescent problems: drugs and violence.

Karen Pittman, director of adolescent pregnancy prevention at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, explains: ``People ask us, `Why should we be concerned about adolescent pregnancy when kids are doing drugs and killing each other? These problems are more immediately life-threatening.'''

They have a point. But few conditions are as life-changing as becoming a teen-age mother. With insufficient education and few marketable skills, many of these young women run the risk of putting themselves - and their children - at a permanent disadvantage.

Two reports last month underscore the importance of keeping adolescent pregnancy high on the nation's agenda of family issues needing solutions. The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development reports that the proportion of girls having sex by the age of 16 has more than doubled in 20 years. And new Census Bureau findings show that two of every five American women giving birth for the first time are single when they become pregnant.

One of those single mothers, Rhonda Spry, designed Logan High School's yearbook section on teen-age parents as a way of helping to open the eyes of other students to ``this very touchy subject.''

At 17, Ms. Spry is the mother of twin boys who celebrated their first birthday on June 20. Her family helps her with the children, and she has maintained a B-minus average.

``I'm proud of my babies,'' she says in a phone interview. ``But it's hard to take care of them and go to school. You hear people talk about you and stuff, but you just have to hang in there.''

For her, as for most of the half-million girls who become mothers each year, ``hanging in there'' means giving up a normal teen-age life. ``Every once in a while I'll ask my mom and dad to watch the babies,'' Spry says. ``But only for maybe three hours.''

Like a majority of the other young mothers at Logan High School - and elsewhere across the country - she receives no help from the father of her infants. ``I'm on my own,'' she explains. ``Not very many of the guys stood by the girls. Most of them just left.''

Teaching adolescent fathers to accept responsibility is an important part of any moral priority list. So is encouraging other teen-agers - girls and boys - to postpone sex.

This fall the Children's Defense Fund will begin what Ms. Pittman calls ``a reasonably significant networking effort'' to address the challenges of adolescent pregnancy. The group plans to focus on policy issues and to offer technical assistance to youth service organizations interested in pregnancy prevention programs.

For now, teen-agers across the country are hearing a sober message in the song ``Eat for Two,'' featured on a hit album by the group 10,000 Maniacs. Lyrics warn that girls who ``risk the game by taking dares with `yes''' may soon find themselves needing to ``eat for two, walk for two, breathe for two.'' Rather than ``giving in'' to boys, the song advises, ``young girls should run and hide instead.''

That message came too late for the 12-year-old homicide victim who thought she was pregnant, and for the 16-year-old who gave birth during a student tour. But for other students whose lives are still unencumbered, Rhonda Spry offers similar advice that could be printed on posters and distributed to teen-agers across the country:

``Definitely wait. You always have time for kids later. It's a big responsibility. It's hard.''

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