Latest Watchword in Preventing Teen Pregnancy: 'No'

This fall, the government will begin doling out $850 million for programs that tell teens to abstain from sexual activity.

In an Indianapolis neighborhood where some teenage girls flaunt pregnancies like new hairdos, Aisha Fields is unabashedly square: She plans to abstain from sex until she marries.

"Most of my friends already have babies," says Aisha, a high school junior and abstinence mentor. "Being pregnant is a fashion. Girls go around bragging: 'I'm three months [pregnant].' They think it's cool."

With 1 million US teens becoming pregnant every year, and 13 percent of all American babies born to teens, Aisha's "just-say-no" attitude is a policymaker's dream come true.

Federal and state officials are banking on such an attitude as they launch a new campaign to shrink the ranks of unwed teenage moms. On Oct. 1, the government will begin dispensing some of the nearly $850 million earmarked under the welfare-reform law over five years for teaching abstinence and preventing out-of-wedlock births.

But experts say there is no research to suggest that abstinence-only education will succeed. In contrast, more-comprehensive programs that cover contraception, family planning, and communication skills can help delay sexual involvement by teens, according to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington.

"It seems foolish to be tossing away all this money without knowing whether it will work," says Lisa Kaeser, a senior associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit group that researches reproductive health.

But experts agree the latest campaign against teen pregnancy marks a big improvement over older policies in one fundamental respect: It emphasizes prevention.

"The old approach to teen pregnancy was to wait until a young woman had a child and then swoop down and offer a lot of services. It didn't work," says Kathleen Sylvester, director of the Social Policy Action Network in Washington. "The new approach is, let's target [teens who are likely to become pregnant] and intervene early."

Public spending on programs that support pregnant teens has far surpassed that on initiatives to prevent teen pregnancy, according to a report released last month by the Southern Legislative Conference in Charleston, W.Va. For example, the report found that in 1995, Southern states together spent nearly $14 billion to underwrite programs to support families begun by adolescents, while they invested only $122 million to prevent teen pregnancy.

Because 80 percent of teens who have a child become pregnant again, and 25 percent have a second child within two years, many later efforts at prevention fail, experts say. Critics also contend that programs aimed at supporting teen mothers can sometimes backfire by sending the message that it is OK for high school girls to have babies.

In Chicago, a sweeping new $2.1 million "cradle to classroom" program at 19 high schools has recently fallen under such criticism. The program will offer long-term, comprehensive education and health assistance to 400 teen mothers and their children starting this fall. It will include prenatal care, home visits, and eventually more child-care centers in schools - services that some experts contend will sanction rather than discourage teen births.

On a humid morning in a largely Hispanic section of Chicago's West Side, a dozen teen moms splash with their babies in a wading pool while others picnic nearby. Supported by Ounce of Prevention, a small program that will feed into "cradle to classroom," most of the teens say they do not regret having a child.

"My pregnancy was planned. I never really liked school," says Joeann Tavila, hugging her 1-year-old daughter, Belen. "I always wanted a baby, someone to be with me when my boyfriend was working."

Program administrators acknowledge that by helping these teen mothers cope with problems and finish school, they may tacitly pave the way for younger women to follow suit. "Our goal is not to tell them it's wrong. We don't say, 'Don't have more children.' We tell them to protect themselves," says Veronica Martinez of Ounce of Prevention.

Since the early 1990s, the welfare debate has spurred greater research into the causes of teen pregnancy and promoted a shift away from after-the-fact services toward prevention.

UNDER the new federal welfare law, teen mothers face less open-ended financial support - 19 states including Indiana have "family caps" on benefits for women who have additional children. The women also face tougher school-attendance requirements.

The law sets down abstinence as the "expected standard" for all school-age children. It also calls for punitive measures for men, urging states to aggressively prosecute for statutory rape the adults who impregnate teenagers.

These stern measures are already under way in Indianapolis. Mayor Steve Goldsmith has targeted out-of-wedlock births to teen mothers as the city's biggest problem, one with "catastrophic implications" for poverty, education, and crime. The city's teen birth rate of 82 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 - or 2,100 births in 1993 - is significantly higher than the national average.

The city since 1995 has prosecuted nearly 60 men for sexual misconduct with a minor, obtaining dozens of convictions and sentences averaging 4.6 years in jail. In addition, the mayor has called for pregnant teenagers and their partners to be excluded from school extracurricular activities, a policy even school administrators resist.

Most important, a citywide, abstinence-only education program called "Willing to Wait" began last year. It has recruited more than 100 mentors from public high schools to teach thousands of sixth-graders about the risks of prenuptial promiscuity. For example, the mentors perform skits that demonstrate how to rebuff sexual advances with lines such as, "What part of 'NO' don't you understand?"

City officials can offer little hard evidence that any of these programs are working, however.

Indeed, critics contend that abstinence-only education may be counterproductive because it is not factual. Under the welfare law, programs must teach that "sexual activity outside of ... marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

"That is not true," asserts Kathleen Baldwin, director of education for Planned Parenthood in Indianapolis. "If kids think you are lying to them, they quit listening." Ms. Baldwin says that to work, abstinence education must be combined with information about contraceptives and broader efforts to create opportunities and self-esteem for the youths.

Still, despite unresolved questions about the new push to prevent teen pregnancy, individual success stories such as that of Aisha are cause for hope.

"I'm going to wait until I have the brains and the smartness to take care of that baby," says Aisha, who wants to be a computer engineer. "I just want to be stable to the point where a baby won't bring me down."

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