Trying to Turn the Tide on Teen Pregnancy

Prevention may go far beyond `Just say no' and include something to `yes' to: high standards of parenting

THE Clinton administration intends to launch ``an all-out culture-based war'' against unwed-teen pregnancy, according to William Galston, the president's deputy director of domestic policy. The campaign, in the early stages of planning, will be similar to the antidrug and antismoking campaigns.

Mr. Galston says the White House will galvanize a national campaign using television and radio public-service announcements and classroom education.

But will this campaign be based on shame or education?

In a Dec. 10, 1993, speech sponsored by the Institute for American Values, a Washington think tank that focuses on family issues, Galston decried the growing ``relaxation of social, moral, and cultural stigmas against out-of-wedlock births.''

He quoted a study by the Family Research Council, which revealed that among Americans older than 55, only 29 percent believe that if a teenager has a child outside of marriage, she should feel no moral reproof from the society. But among younger people, aged 15 to 24, 70 percent said the mother should feel no negative judgment.

As Galston points out, people who see something wrong with unwed-teen pregnancy are, literally, dying out. Unless young people change their attitudes about this issue, our society is in for big trouble.

In some policy circles today, including the Clinton White House, there is a sudden sense of near-panic on this issue.

In a controversial Wall Street Journal piece in October, conservative scholar Charles Murray warned of ``The Coming White Underclass.'' He recalled that when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now a United States senator, wrote his famous 1965 warning about the disintegration of black families, 26 percent of black children were born to unwed mothers. Among whites today, the figure is 22 percent, just four percentage points lower. Meanwhile, unwed births among African-Americans are now at 68 percent.

Murray predicted that unwed pregnancy will increase just as rapidly among low-income whites, and the so-called underclass will grow to ``four or five times the size of the one we have now.''

Murray's solution? Abolish welfare payments to women who choose to stay single but have children. Doing so, Murray believes, would decrease the number of births or force more involvement by the fathers and other family members.

For the children that cannot be supported by their families, Murray recommends adoption and the creation of a new network of orphanages.

The Clinton administration is unlikely to pursue these approaches, but Galston does point out that families headed by single mothers are 10 times as likely to live in poverty as families with both the mother and father present. Something must be done quickly, he says, to change the hearts and minds of young people.

This is why he favors the all-out cultural war on unwed pregnancy. But if such a campaign - which we do need - remains primarily media-based, it is bound to be superficial and even laughable to teenagers. A ``Just Say No to Unwed Teen Pregnancy'' program (that's not the official slogan, but for now it will do) may accomplish very little unless it is accompanied by a national campaign to offer teenagers something to say yes to.

Studies of the Just Say No campaign against drugs are inconclusive. At the height of the Just Say No era, I interviewed many high school students who said they had, indeed, said no to drugs - and said yes to alcohol. Cocaine use among suburban kids did drop substantially, but it increased among inner- city youth; today, LSD and other hallucinatory drugs are making a comeback.

Another danger is that a Just Say No to Babies campaign will focus solely on all the difficulties a child can add to your life; this could feed the already dangerous anti-child sentiment in society.

And a superficial media approach that is designed to bring back shame is likely to ignore one of the underlying reasons for the problem. Children who have children today are often desperate for love, and they want to produce a baby who will give them that love, or at least a kind of status among their peers.

``These kids are desperate for community,'' says Judy Kirsten, who has worked with pregnant girls and teen mothers for two decades in San Diego schools. Instead of giving them community - which includes both love and limits - we cut them loose.

The most important question remains: What will we offer kids to say ``yes'' to?

One answer is parenting literacy.

We should pursue the Just Say No approach, but we should match it, dollar for dollar, minute for minute, with a national campaign to teach children about child development and parenting, about the hardship and the joy.

Such a course should be required for high school graduation, for girls and boys, but ideally it would be offered not at the schools but, through a kind of voucher system - at churches, synagogues, YMCAs, Planned Parenthood, public-spirited corporations, and other institutions.

It would be a community curriculum on parenting, respecting the diversity of family values.

While I can cite no studies to prove this, my feeling is that the more kids know about parenting (not just sex, but parenting), the more likely they are to be responsible when they do have children - and, perhaps, the more likely they will be to just say no to parenting until they can do it right. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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