The price of promiscuity Birth rate statistics do not tell the whole story.

January 26, 1996

HEALTH AND social service officials in Howard County know how to put two and two together. Seeing the glaring difference between the pregnancy and birth rates of teen-age girls, they figure it means more of them are getting abortions.

Howard County may be more affluent, but its suburbanite teen-agers are like teens anywhere else in America. They are subject to the same cultural influences that have made teen-age pregnancy a problem in urban settings. What is different about Howard County is that more of its teen-agers can afford abortions. In 1993, the latest year with available statistics, the county had a pregnancy rate of 15.1 per 1,000 among females ages 10 to 19, but a birth rate among the same group of only 7.6 per 1,000.

No one really knows how much of that difference is attributable to abortions because doctors in Maryland are no longer required report the procedures. But health officials believe the number of abortions in Howard is rising. They say a drop in the reported teen-age abortion rate -- from 12.3 per 1,000 in 1990 to 4.8 per 1,000 in 1993 -- may be due to fewer doctors reporting the abortions they have performed.

Unfortunately, while public health and social workers are being realistic about such statistics, other public officials are keeping their heads in the clouds. For example, some of the same legislators who want to see fewer abortions also supported a new welfare rule that makes life harder for teen-agers who decide not to abort. The rule requires teens to move in with their parents to qualify for the child-care benefits that many will need to finish high school. But by moving in with their parents and having their incomes combined to compute eligibility, some teen-agers will no longer qualify for such aid. And without help paying for child care, a lot of them will simply drop out of school.

Dropping out encourages the cycle of dependency that welfare reformers say they are trying to avoid. The onerous rules they are placing on kids who are already suffering the consequences of their behavior won't reduce teen-age pregnancies or abortions. Attempts to discourage promiscuity ought to be directed toward young men and women before they make a baby. Statistics from Howard County and the rest of America indicate that's where more work needs to be done.

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