The Scarlet Letter Gets Sadly Updated

Under normal circumstances, Melissa Drexler could be a sophomore in college this fall. But last year Ms. Drexler, of Forked River, N.J., committed a terrible crime: killing the newborn son she delivered in a bathroom at her senior prom. After she is sentenced Oct. 29, she will spend at least several years in jail. In a similar tragedy, another New Jersey teenager, Amy Grossberg, and her boyfriend, Brian Peterson, pleaded guilty last month to killing their newborn son in a motel room. Ms. Grossberg got a 2-1/2-year sentence, Mr. Peterson two years.

Like other teenage mothers before them, both young women hid their pregnancies out of fear and shame, afraid to seek help even from their parents. Who knows how the stories might have been different if someone who had suspected they were pregnant - a teacher, a school nurse, a friend - had reached out with a listening ear or a helping hand. Although teen birth rates in the United States have declined by 12 percent since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half a million teens still give birth every year. Despite public attitudes that are far more forgiving today than in the past, many of these young women still fear that to be young, single, and pregnant is to face a persistent stigma, real or imagined: the scarlet P.

Vulnerable teenagers also face mixed messages about sexuality. In ads, movies, and television shows, they are bombarded by sexual messages that subtly and not-so-subtly encourage them - and everyone else - to "do it." At the same time they hear the concerned "don't-do-it" admonitions of parents, religious leaders, and other adults who care deeply about their well-being and their future. Adults trying to help teens steer a safe and moral course face dilemmas of their own: How to convey the importance of saying no to premarital sex and at the same time reassure teens that they stand ready to help if students find themselves in trouble. Schools face other balancing acts. In Williamstown, Ky., earlier this month, two top-ranking high school students claimed they were denied entry to the National Honor Society because they were pregnant. Somer Chipman and Chasity Glass are suing their school board on grounds of sexual discrimination.

Some honor society chapters around the country have allowed pregnant students to become members. But a lawyer for the school board in Williamstown explains that the admissions committee could not justify holding up unwed mothers as role models for other students.

The young women concede that they made a mistake. At the same time, they defend their character by pointing out that they did not have an abortion or drop out of school. They say they are behaving responsibly by raising their daughters themselves. And they note that teenage boys who engage in premarital sex - or teenage girls who have abortions - face no similar exclusion from the honor society. A challenge remains: How to avoid turning young unmarried mothers into modern-day Hester Prynnes and give them the support they need. The genius of a society is measured by its ability to uphold its rules without destroying those who on occasion break them. Even strict constructionists must suspect that in cases like these, compassion will lead to more healing than condemnation, and not just for the teens involved. In the end, it's the innocent babies who deserve open arms, because they represent, like all children, a gift to the future as well as a responsibility. Many women fear that to be young, single, and pregnant is to face a persistent stigma, real or imagined: the scarlet P.

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