Georgia Battles Old Foe Of South: Teen Pregnancy

THESE days high-schooler Keisa Fluellen goes to class with a growing number of parents - her peers.

Keisa is among those enlisted in a renewed battle against teen pregnancy in Georgia, the state with the dubious distinction of having the highest rate in the nation. The senior at Atlanta's Frederick Douglass High School volunteers in a local program to talk to eighth-graders about the merits of sexual abstinence.

Georgia has had the highest pregnancy rate for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 since 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. It's a ranking ''I'm not proud of at all,'' says Gov. Zell Miller (D). ''It is a tragedy for those young girls.... It's a tragedy for the babies they bear.''

To try to ratchet the state's numbers down, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention plans to organize new statewide pregnancy-prevention efforts. Last weekend it launched its campaign by bringing together more than 500 local and national experts on the issue.

Teen pregnancy is not a recent epidemic for Georgia or the United States. The rate of teens having babies was actually higher in the 1950s than it is today. The difference: Back then, teens often wed the fathers or were already married; today, more babies are born to unmarried, younger teens, a trend that often leads to higher poverty rates, dropping out of school, juvenile delinquency, and long-term welfare dependency.

''The negative consequences of teen pregnancy and parenthood ... are so much more serious than in the past,'' says Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington.

While teenage pregnancy in the US affects every race, religion, and class, the problem is compounded in the South, where the rates are higher than for any other region. In Georgia in 1992, the latest year available for statistics the CDC compiles, 106.9 of every 1,000 teenage girls ages 15 to 19 became pregnant - more than 25,000. Other states below the Mason-Dixon line also rank high. In comparison, the lowest-ranking state, Wyoming, had a rate of 53.7 per 1,000 teens; Michigan, whose numbers fall in the middle, had nearly 80 per 1,000.

Several factors contribute to the South's ranking, including a higher percentage of people living in poverty and a larger black population, whose rates of teen pregnancy exceed those of whites. Experts also say the rural nature of the Southern states makes family planning services less accessible. And in some parts of the culture, the discussion of sex or birth control is considered a taboo topic, although studies indicate that more than two-thirds of American teenagers have had sex by the time they graduate from high school.

The majority of teen pregnancies are unintended. Most of the babies are fathered not by teen boys, but by older men, statistics show.

Individuals working to curb teen births face a Herculean task. ''People have been working on the problem for 25 years, and it's not better,'' says Susan Philliber, senior partner at Philliber Research Associates, which evaluates social programs. Part of the challenge, she says, is that few programs have worked, so there aren't many success stories to replicate.

How to address teen pregnancy can be a sensitive issue. Some parents and communities endorse abstinence-only programs, while others urge teaching about contraception. What is clear, many say, is that often a community needs a comprehensive, long-term approach, which could include everything from dropout prevention and adult mentoring to more supervised after-school recreational activities.

Many who have grappled with the teen pregnancy issue emphasize a need to address the boys and men who are fathering the babies. Governor Miller, for example, is proposing a mandatory, 10-year minimum prison sentence for adults over 21 who have sex with teens 16 and under.

''People are looking for the magic bullet they can quickly insert at a small cost and not have to do it again,'' says Tracy Kreutzer, policy analyst for the Southern Center on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention in Washington. ''We pretty much know that doesn't work.''

But some states are seeing results. Ten years ago, North Carolina formed a statewide council to tackle teen pregnancy. A private initiative, it also receives funding from the state legislature. Most of the state's counties now have local councils made up of concerned citizens who monitor and mobilize community efforts to address teen pregnancy. State figures indicate that the councils have had an effect: In 1990, 105.4 of every 1,000 teen girls gave birth; in 1994 the figure had dropped to about 95, says Barbara Huberman, who served as president of North Carolina's coalition for 10 years.

Georgia's campaign, a private initiative funded by the Turner Foundation, will build community coalitions, hire local organizers to work in different counties, provide public education and outreach, and develop a training program, organizers say. ''It's a multidimensional problem,'' but it can be solved, Ms. Edelman says. ''One of the best contraceptives is hope, a high self-esteem ... and a sense that there are adults out there who care.''

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