Putting the stigma back in teen-age pregnancies Indiana town weighs old-fashioned view of illegitimate babies

June 23, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TIPTON, Ind. -- The seat of Tipton County has a picturesque stone courthouse, a middle-income, church-going population, a small-town friendliness -- and a teen pregnancy rate that rivals Baltimore's.

As members of the Teen Pregnancy Coalition formed two years ago to fight the problem, they adopted a theory that's discussed more and more: Americans have become too accepting of high-school motherhood.

"The overreaction was dad standing in the doorway and the girl in rags shivering in the cold with her baby," says Mark Anderson, associate pastor of Tipton's West Street Christian Church. "Thank God we're past that.

"But we've lost a sense of responsibility," he says. "One of the things we're lacking here is a sense of shame and guilt. Guilt is a way of coming to terms with what you've done wrong. Maybe we need the kind of love that says, 'I love you a lot, but, boy, you've really disappointed me.' "

It's a point of view heard across the country as people try to lower teen-pregnancy rates.

"I believe we have to give it the stigma it used to have -- that it's not cute to have a child when you are 15 years old," New York Democratic Rep. Nita M. Lowey said last week, as a national study was released at the White House.

Terri Newcom, who chairs Tipton's Teen Pregnancy Coalition, says, "We've let girls think, 'If you get pregnant, it's not so bad.' "

Birth rates and pregnancy rates are difficult to compile and compare, and various agencies produce varying figures.

The coalition uses the rate published by the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service: In 1991, 11.8 percent of unmarried county teen-agers gave birth.

In 1994, Baltimore's birthrate for unmarried girls 15 to 19 was 10.7 percent, according to Maryland health department figures.

Low poverty

An hour north of Indianapolis, Tipton sits in the center of Indiana amid rich farm land. Tidy residential blocks stretch out from downtown, where the Diana Theater shows "Twister" nightly. There are few showy signs of wealth, and no signs of tumble-down poverty.

"We have a low poverty level, a high percentage of high-school graduates, all the things you would think would point to a low pregnancy rate," says Dr. William Stone, Tipton's only obstetrician-gynecologist. "And instead we have a high pregnancy rate."

Coalition members aren't sure how to change attitudes, to convey strong disapproval of teen-age pregnancy while supporting the girls and their babies.

The debate is delicate. "What we're getting is a defensive response," says Dr. Stone, who moved here from Indianapolis three years ago.

Teen-age mothers don't want to be told they're a problem. Their parents don't want to hear they're making life too easy. No one wants lectures about morality.

"Everybody calls it a problem. It gets on my nerves," says 15-year-old Christina Vasquez, who has just finished her sophomore year and awaits the birth of her baby in October. "It's not a problem. It's just something that happens. I'm still a person."

She intends to finish high school, work, go to college and become a physical therapist. Her mother, Angela Long, adamantly insists Christina will succeed at "her lifelong dream."

Lowered her chances

But statistics say that Christina has lowered her chances.

The report released at the White House cataloged the grim, expensive consequences of early pregnancy, for both the girls and their babies: higher health care costs, more welfare, more children in foster care, more boys in jail.

The litany includes deferred educations, single-parent households and minimum-wage jobs.

"The odds are stacked against the offspring of adolescent mothers from the moment they enter the world," says the Robin Hood Foundation study, which estimates 175,000 girls a year 17 years old or younger have their first baby.

"If you just think about all the bad things that can happen to kids," President Clinton said, "they're more likely to happen for teen mothers. If a million [children] become pregnant each year, we face the prospect of dramatic social decay."

Outsiders may be surprised by Tipton's teen-pregnancy rates, though residents wonder why anyone would think their community would be immune.

"Do they think we don't look at television and the movies, where sexuality is glamorized and glorified?" asks Anderson. "Do they think we go to barn dances on Saturday night?"

"Don't we tie everything in with sex?" asks Thomas Fletcher, Tipton's school superintendent. "Don't we use sex to sell everything, from drinking a Coke to smoking a cigarette?"

Rise in teen pregnancies

Pregnancy rates for teen-agers, which dropped nationally through the '70s and early '80s, began to rise about 10 years ago, says Judy Myers-Walls, associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University.

Society's harsh treatment of pregnant teen-agers was easing. Attitudes became, if not approving, more compassionate.

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