The newest figures are two years old, but they are ominous nonetheless: In 1988, more than 5,500 Baltimore city teen-agers became pregnant; over 3,000 gave birth. And there is little reason to suspect the numbers have changed very much since. There are perhaps as many reasons for teen pregnancy as there are teen-agers who become pregnant. But the underlying problem is this: These adolescents are either ignorant about birth control, or they don't know how to get it and use it.
Now the city Health Department has embarked on a wise, albeit controversial, course: It has begun distributing birth control pills and condoms through on-site health clinics at seven city schools. The idea comes from a landmark study by the Johns Hopkins University done in the early '80s in which students could get professional counseling at school and medical and contraceptive services at nearby clinics. After three years, the pregnancy rate in the participating schools dropped 30 percent, and the median age of a girl's first sexual encounter rose from 15 1/2 to 16.
Sixteen is still vulnerably young; and it would be wonderful if teaching adolescents to "just say no" would be enough to deter sexual activity. But in a city that has one of the highest teen-age pregnancy rates in the nation, that is wishful thinking. The fact that contraceptives will be given only to those students who are already sexually active indicates that parents have already had their chance at moral suasion -- and failed.