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Kimberly Brown is explaining post-partum depression and why babies cry to her Tuesday night group of five new and soon-to-be new young moms. None is married. All are on welfare. All are teenagers. ‘If you got to the point where you couldn’t deal anymore, who would you turn to?’ asks Brown, who is a teen parent educator. They chime, ‘My mama.’ She coaxes them to think of someone else. Three name their sisters. No one names the father of her child. (House focuses on problem of teen pregnancy. [1995, January 20]. USA Today.)
The incidence of teen pregnancy continues to rise. About 1 million teens get pregnant each year in the United States. A National Research Council study notes that in 1987, about a million teenagers became pregnant, resulting in some 470,000 births, 400,000 abortions, and 130,000 miscarriages. Of special concern is the disproportionate increase in pregnancies among girls under the age of 15. In 1994, the public cost for all families started by teen birth was estimated to be $25.1 billion; it is estimated that a simple delay of these births to age 20 could save $10 billion. ([1994, February]. Contemporary OB/GYN, 34.)
Last year, Vincent Dekker was like many teenagers in high school. He liked to party with friends. He had a steady girlfriend. The future was open. Then came The News.
According to the USA Today article, teen births have soared in the last 30 years from 92,000 in 1960 to 368,000 in 1991. Almost 80% of teen moms are on welfare within five years of giving birth.
(For Vincent), thoughts of hanging out and having time for oneself were pushed aside by more pressing concerns, like changing the baby’s diaper and keeping the young one fed, clothed, and smiling.
According to a recent study on marriage, the United States has gone from the most marrying society in the world to the one with the most divorces and unwed mothers. The authors of a recent study entitled, "Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation," conclude that the decline in marriage is mainly responsible for the deteriorating well-being of children. ‘If we’re concerned about teen pregnancies, illegitimacy, deadbeat dads, and children in poverty, then we can no longer ignore the common denominator behind these problems—the steady weakening of marriage as the primary institution for raising children,’ say Rutgers University Sociology Professor David Popenoe and Jean Bethke Elshtain, Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
The statistics related to teenage pregnancy are sobering:
- The federal government sets out $30 billion a year in social services to teens and their babies.
- Only 5 percent of teen mothers get college degrees, compared to 47 percent of those who have children at age 25 or older.
- One-third of daughters of teenage mothers will go on to become teenage mothers themselves.
- Between 1960 and 1989, the percentage of teens who were unmarried when they had their first child rose from 33 percent to 81 percent.
- The teenage pregnancy rate in the U.S. is currently the highest among developed nations.
- One-third of girls who had a first baby by age 16 had another baby within two years.
Since 1900, the average age of menarche (the onset of menstruation) in the U.S. decreased by about 5.5 years to the present age of 12.2 years. It is not surprising, then, that more teenagers are becoming sexually active—and at increasingly early ages. Of the 20 to 22 million Americans aged 15 to 19, it is estimated that 11 million are sexually active. Four million of these sexually active 15- to 19-year-olds are girls. Of first premarital pregnancies, 20% occur during the first month of sexual activity, and 50% occur in the six months after sexual initiation. ([1993, November/December]. Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, 6.)
The publishers of "Marriage in America: Report to the Nation" make recommendations for easing the alarming teen pregnancy statistics. They maintain that the entertainment industry should not ‘glamorize unwed motherhood, marital infidelity, alternative lifestyles, and sexual promiscuity...(Should) reconsider the popularization of "gangsta" rap and other music that celebrates sexual violence or is steeped in a predatory view of male-female relationships.’ ([1995, March]. America Online.)
Programs like the Children’s Aid Society Adolescent Pregnancy Protection Program (APPP—New York City), the Ounce of Prevention program (Chicago), the Dollar a Day program (Denver), and many others look beyond sex education to the whole child. ‘Youngsters who feel that they have a future rarely become teen parents,’ says Michael Carrera, founder of APPP. ‘Education, employment, and self-esteem are the most powerful contraceptives of all.’
Other preventative programs are being installed across the country. According to an LA Times article (The crying game. [1995, April 6].), several schools nationwide have embarked on the Baby Think It Over program, a pregnancy prevention program in which students who are considered at high risk of becoming pregnant are assigned lifelike baby dolls. The $220, computer-controlled "baby" has a recording of a newborn’s cries that cannot be quieted unless the doll is properly cuddled and "fed," which entails inserting a key into its monitoring device. Yellow, red, and green alarms light up on the doll’s back if the teen neglects or mishandles it. It usually takes 10 to 30 minutes to calm the babies. The San Diego-based company that produces the Baby Think It Over dolls offers babies of different races. The manufacturer also makes a "crack baby," whose crying is more frequent and accompanied by tremors.
A 17-year-old participant of the program took her "baby" to church choir practice and it started crying while she was singing. Unable to quiet it, she finally had to leave. ‘That was a doll,’ she said, ‘Imagine a real baby.’
Schools are turning to the computerized dolls at a time when teenage pregnancy has become one of the most emotional elements in the national debate over growing federal welfare payments. About 90% of welfare money goes to fatherless families that most often started with unwed teenage mothers.
Another new effort on the pregnancy prevention scene is an Iowa program called It Takes Two. The program stresses responsibility for both boys and girls, encouraging abstinence but also teaching about birth control. The program is fast-moving and entertaining, and includes a segment in which students act out a TV game show—guessing the cost of raising a baby. It Takes Two is popular among educators and is spreading throughout Iowa. National experts consider it a model in preventing teen pregnancy. However, nobody knows how effective the program really is. Program director Tom Klaus says, ‘We feel pretty confident it will...make a short-term impact on attitude, but will it reduce the teen pregnancy rate? I don’t know. I’d like to think it will, but I can’t be so arrogant as to make that claim.’
A "kids helping kids" strategy has been adopted by some organizations. Teen counselors are being carefully educated to counsel and impart useful and perhaps even life-saving facts to their peers on topics ranging from AIDS to avoiding early pregnancy. According to a recent article in the LA Times ([1995, February 26]. Kids helping kids to avoid pregnancy.), the approach appears to be working. Before the teen counselor project began, about 30% of the teenagers visiting the Valley Community Clinic in North Hollywood were pregnant. Now, three years into the program and with the number of clinic visits tripled, the teen pregnancy rate has dropped to 6%.
In other cases of kids helping kids, teen parents have developed forums to discuss adolescent pregnancy protection and the risks of unprotected sex with other teens. In one such forum, the panel of teenage couples was joined by a troupe of young actors organized by Planned Parenthood that performed skits dramatizing the hazards of sexually transmitted diseases and underscoring the option of abstaining from sex.
Dadisi Elliot, who began a teen-father program two years ago called Developing Adolescent Dads for Success, says that while straight talk may have been uncommon for previous generations, for today’s youth the issue of sex and its consequences are ‘really out of the closet.’
- Do you consider teenage, out-of-wedlock pregnancies to be a public health issue? Why or why not?
- What types of programs do you think would be useful in preventing unwanted pregnancies?
- In your opinion, why do unmarried teenagers want to have babies?
- Teenagers are in the process of developing responsible attitudes.
- Parents are responsible for discussing their values regarding sex and children with their adolescent children, who are developing value systems of their own.
- Secular education should promote abstinence as the safest protection against disease and unwanted pregnancies while encouraging safe sex for those who are sexually active.
- Youth leaders have a greater freedom to deal with the personal and theological aspects of this issue. Discussion must be done sensitively and courageously.
Sheila Walsh cCYS