A case of honor and teen pregnancy

August 11, 1998|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO -- While the eyes of the nation are riveted on the sex scandal in Washington, another sex scandal with national implications is raising questions just as vexing.

It involves two 17-year-old girls, Somer Chipman and Chasity Glass of the northern Kentucky town of Williamstown. They were denied entry to the Grant County High School chapter of the National Honor Society, even though, in most ways, the girls were very well qualified.

Miss Chipman has a 3.8 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale. Miss Glass has a 3.7. Daughters of truck drivers, they took tough courses like advanced-placement English and chemistry, played musical instruments and won several local and state awards.

Single mothers

Yet, out of 33 students with the required academic record, they were the only ones who were denied entry to the honors society. Why? They were not officially told, but it didn't take long for them to figure it was because of one significant glitch in their otherwise exemplary records: Both girls had babies outside of marriage.

Both girls have told reporters they feel they made a mistake but consider abortion to be a much greater mistake.

That's their right. As one who favors a woman's right to choose, I applaud the courage of these two women for choosing to keep their babies.

The American Civil Liberties Union is helping the teens to argue that the honor society rejection violated federal laws that ban sex discrimination because of pregnancy in high school.

But the famously pro-choice ACLU should not be standing alone. Where, I wonder, is the anti-abortion movement?

Protecting fetuses, whether or not the woman wants to, has long been its fundamental tenet. Some voices, like the Republican Party platform, even condemn abortions in cases of rape and incest.

"If I had an abortion or had given [my daughter] up for adoption and hid my pregnancy, I'd be right up there with" the rest of the new inductees, Miss Glass told the Associated Press.

Instead, these two young flowers are being penalized for doing precisely what the anti-abortion movement would have wanted them to do. Instead of letting these girls stay ostracized, as if wearing a modern-day scarlet letter, the movement should be honoring them as heroes.

The honor society's national handbook says pregnancy "cannot be the basis for automatic denial" under federal law, but, "it may properly be considered" by local chapters "as a factor to be assessed in determining character."

A matter of character

But how do you define "character"? Critics say the girls no longer make good role models since everybody in the school knows they have had sex outside of marriage.

That's not an unreasonable point in a country that has some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world.

But doesn't a student who admits she made a mistake when she allowed herself to become pregnant show good character? Doesn't she also show good character when she decides to keep the baby instead of having an abortion? Doesn't she also HTC show good character when, despite the never-ending chores involved in raising a child, she manages to build an outstanding record of scholarship and service?

Sex is hardly a new issue with the honor society, according to officials in the National Honor Society's Reston, Va., headquarters. Last spring, a Xenia, Ohio, girl complained that she had been accepted, then rejected before her induction ceremony because of her pregnancy. A Pennsylvania girl's similar case reached the Supreme Court in 1992. She lost after the high court declared honor society membership to be a privilege, not a right.

That's fair. Local communities are a better judge than the national government in determining how honor should be defined.

But, just as it is not unreasonable for a chapter to bar sexually active students, it is not unreasonable to allow them, either. Many school principals have fought quite vigorously to maintain the eligibility of such students, including pregnant girls, according to David Cordts, associate director in the department of student activities at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which has overseen the honor society since 1921.

Community standards are whatever the community decides they are. Minds do change.

So, where I wonder, are the abortion opponents who work so diligently to try to change minds elsewhere? Two courageous young Kentucky women could use their support.

If ever there was a time for the ACLU to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Pat Buchanan or the Christian Coalition, this is it.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/11/98

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