Seriously, how DO you stop teen pregnancy?

July 14, 1996|By Sara Engram

WHAT IF GOV. Parris Glendening got serious about reducing teen pregnancy? What would he do?

This past week, some highly qualified people gathered in Baltimore for one of the dozens of conferences that take place every year to discuss such issues. But don't count on meetings like this to produce strategies that will actually reduce this problem.

Too often, solutions from the experts don't begin to address the complexity of these problems. Yet we continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on partial and ineffective solutions.

Let's assume the governor decided to buck this trend and focus just on the part of the phenomenon that makes teen pregnancy a truly frightening problem -- pregnant girls, some as young as 13 or 14, who have grown up in poverty and, often, in chaotic, dysfunctional households.

Even with a high school diploma, these girls would face big obstacles to becoming productive adults. Without an education, their chances are almost nil. If they get pregnant, they will almost surely drop out of school. In turn, their children will be less likely to succeed in school and more likely to get in trouble with the law.

The plight of these young mothers and children may touch our compassion. But it should also raise big questions about the future of a society that can allow this trend to continue. But how, exactly, can we reduce this problem?

First, we would have to understand it. We should chart the numbers of births to teens by census tracts, pinpointing the parts of the state where the problem is greatest. Logically, that is where we would put most of our efforts.

Next, we should survey those neighborhoods to find vulnerable girls. A likely scenario might involve a 13- or 14-year-old girl who is spending a lot of time hanging out on the streets and not doing well in school. She would be a prime candidate to become the next statistic. If you had been assigned by the governor to prevent that, where would you start?

In relatively stable, middle-class neighborhoods, you could enlist the help of parents. But what if you found that this girl's mother is strung out on drugs, with a couple of younger children to worry about? She has essentially given up on her rebellious adolescent daughter.

Drug treatment might help the mother, but even if she kicked her habit and established a better relationship with her daughter, would it happen in time to prevent the pregnancy? It's clear that we shouldn't count on parental help.

What about sex education? Liberals often attribute high rates of teen pregnancy to lack of instruction to insure that teens know how to avoid pregnancy. They blame conservatives for blocking sex-education classes that could help lower teen-pregnancy rates.

But think about the mentality of headstrong teen-agers. Are they known for carefully considering the consequences of their actions? Are they known for consistency in accepting responsibility? Are they known for diligently paying attention in any class? Are they known for risk-taking and a sense of immortality? In short, would you bet your job that sex education would keep our theoretical teen-age girl from getting pregnant?

Conservatives, of course, must take their share of the blame. Surely everyone would agree that abstinence is the right course for teen-agers this young, male or female. But would you bet your job that a ''just say no'' campaign will prevent that girl from becoming pregnant?

Targeting males

What about another possible solution discussed at this week's conference -- targeting the males who seem ready and willing to get young girls pregnant. What if we start enforcing laws about sex with minors? Or devise more programs to bring men into the picture in these families?

Those aren't bad ideas, but given our record with attempts to enforce child-support payments, I wouldn't bet my job that they would make a sizable dent in the statistics.

Are you beginning to get the picture?

There are dozens of ways to spend money around the issue of teen pregnancy. We need all these things, from outreach programs to get mothers off drugs and involved in their $l children's lives, to programs that reach out to boys and men. Most of all, we need to give these vulnerable girls a reason not to get pregnant. But if we want to reduce the problem, these well-intentioned but uncoordinated stabs at the issue simply aren't going to make much difference.

Which raises a question: Considering all the money we're spending now for poor results, would we be better off simply using it as a bribe? Say, for every month the girl doesn't get pregnant, we offer her $50.

That's certainly not a comprehensive solution. But it strikes me as a better bet than sex education.

The point is simple: If we want to make a difference, we need to be realistic about the odds we're facing. And we have to give up our addiction to partial solutions.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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