Girls interrupted

July 21, 2005

WHEN FANTASIA Barrino, American Idol winner and now pop star, released her new album this spring, two songs quickly made top singles lists and placed her in the middle of a long-running debate about the glorification of unwed, early pregnancy among teenage girls in general and among black and Hispanic girls in particular.

One of the songs, "Baby Mama," the singer's anthem to single mothers, was criticized for sending the wrong message to young fans. Ms. Barrino, herself a black, single mother who became pregnant at age 17, said she was misunderstood. She was not saying single motherhood was cool but rather that it was hard -- very hard.

That message appears to be getting through to American teenagers, whose pregnancy and birth rates have followed a steady decline since 1991 in every racial group. No doubt the credit belongs not to the music industry, which bombards teenagers with sexual imagery, but to a host of organizations, public and private pregnancy prevention programs, abstinence and sex education campaigns, and even sports programs designed to focus teenagers' attention on athleticism and self-esteem and away from parenthood.

The results have positive public policy implications, and local, state and federal governments should generously support these efforts. Successful programs also have the potential to reduce the number of people in poverty and on public assistance, and to increase the number of children finishing high school and going to college. Eighty percent of children born to unmarried mothers under age 20 who did not complete high school are living in poverty, compared with only 8 percent of those born to married mothers older than 20 who finished high school, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

That pregnancy and birth rates declined at the same time abortion rates for teens dropped -- by 39 percent from 1994 to 2000 for 15- to 17-year-olds -- is also good news. Overall rates of adolescent pregnancies ending in abortion remained stable during that period, however, and increased among low-income women, indicating that more work needs to be done.

Still, more young women putting off early motherhood for more fully lived adolescence indicates that teenage girls are finding other outlets to express notions of maturity, womanhood and belonging -- and are living out another of Ms. Barrino's ballads: "Free Yourself."

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