A crime against coffers

July 16, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Amanda Smisek was seven months pregnant when a note was brought to her high school classroom in Emmett, Idaho, asking her to go down to the city police station and talk to a detective. At the time, she says, ''I thought someone had gotten into trouble.''

This was the phrase we once used to describe girls who got pregnant. But of course Amanda had no idea that she, like a half-dozen other unwed teen-age parents-to-be -- including her boyfriend -- would be found guilty of ''fornication.''

Now, however, the resurrection of Idaho Code 19-6603, a 1921 law making sex out of wedlock a crime, has become a signal of where we are headed in a desperate attempt to do something, anything, about teen-age pregnancy. Back where we started from.

When the laws against fornication were established, sex outside of marriage was considered a crime against the community morals. Today the law is being used to prosecute a crime against the community coffers.

Would Amanda and the other teens have been arrested just for ''fornicating?'' Of course not. A full 76 percent of females have sex while they are teen-agers. The average American starts having sex eight years before marriage.

Would Amanda have been arrested if she had chosen to have an abortion? Surely not.

The public purse

Would she have been prosecuted if she had money to pay for her own medical care? Unlikely. According to newspaper reports, Amanda and most of the others were arrested after they applied for state assistance.

If ''fornication'' were a crime applied evenhandedly, the Gem County Courthouse would be a very busy place in a rather empty town. But this story is less about sex than about money.

I have no doubt that 16-year-old girls like Amanda are too young to be mothers. Too young for themselves. Too young for their babies. But the latest rash of public policies seem less concerned with their immaturity than with their poverty.

Consider the statutory-rape laws also being dusted off in places from Montana to California. How many of them are truly focused on coercion, the exploitation of young girls by older men? And how many on welfare costs? Indeed in Gem County, over-18 boyfriends are being charged as ''sex offenders'' with under-18 girlfriends. Will they, under ''Megan's Law,'' have to register wherever they move and be kept out of their children's schoolyards?

Kristin Lukar, who has written about the politics of teen-age pregnancy in ''Dubious Conceptions,'' offers up another historic warning about ''the symbolic use of these archaic laws to demonize and punish the poor.''

''What's toxic about teen-age pregnancy,'' she says, ''is that it combines a threat to the public purse with a threat to morality.'' That's the same lethal combination that, earlier this century, sent sexually active poor girls to ''reform schools.'' And had welfare mothers sterilized.

Today we talk about teen-age mothers in wildly conflicted ways -- as ''children having children'' and as calculating females who make reproductive decisions based on AFDC policy. We talk about them as a cause of poverty and forget how often they're the result. Will we now through the old fornication laws make them all criminals as well?

Amanda Smisek and her infant baby Tyler are living at home now with her single mother, Jody, a woman who brings home about $700 a month, earning an extra 40 cents an hour on the night

shift. Amanda's boyfriend, who has been in and out of foster care, is living in a Boise shelter.

But Gem County has done one thing for Tyler's parents: It's given them each a rap sheet.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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