Few social statistics have disturbed Americans - or riveted foreign critics - more than the birth rate among unmarried teen-agers in this country. It has long been viewed as an index of moral decline and dependency on public assistance.
But for the past decade, in fact, the rate has gone down. The latest numbers show declines in teen births throughout the country and among all population groups. The rate has fallen most sharply among blacks, 26 percent, and slowest, though still significantly, among Hispanics.
Cultural attitudes - such as the high importance given motherhood by many Hispanics - affect these figures. So does the widening array of programs, often government-sponsored, intended to discourage teen pregnancy. Religious leaders are often involved, as well as public-health officials. A stronger emphasis is being put on building a sense of responsibility among the young men, both teen and older, who father these children.
Other causes for the decline include an increased use of contraception, the availability of abortion, and worries about diseases linked to sexual activity. But these "solutions" don't solve the underlying problems.
Four out of 10 unmarried American girls are expected to become pregnant before they reach 20, according to the US Health and Human Services Department. That's more than 900,000 a year.
Clearly, government and community efforts to counter teen pregnancy, have to be sustained. Even as the numbers gradually go down, the cultural and mental influences that encourage early sexuality are rampant. TV shows, movies, and magazines routinely put a seal of approval on premarital sex.
The crucial counterinfluence goes beyond lectures on safe sex and the economic perils of early pregnancy. All young Americans need to be guided toward the clearsightedness that recognizes individuals' right - and ability - to make wise decisions for themselves, and their future offspring.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society