Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the nation's new surgeon general, took office last week having made it clear that she intends to tackle some tough and controversial issues. At the top of her list is the country's epidemic of adolescent pregnancy, a problem Dr. Elders has targeted as a leading cause of poverty and a contributor to many other social ills, from infant mortality to welfare dependency. So far, however, the federal government has found no coherent or effective approach to the issue.
One of the first challenges facing the new surgeon general is to define a national agenda for facing up to a problem that is putting increasing burdens on state and local governments. In doing so, she can get a lot of help from Maryland, which in recent years has earned recognition as a model for efforts to deal with a pervasive, complex and politically sensitive issue.
As it happens, the woman who deserves much of the credit for Maryland's success is heading for Washington as well. Today, ++ Bronwyn W. Mayden, executive director of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, is saying farewell after seven years to sign on next week with the Child Welfare League of America. There, she will attempt to do nationally what the Governor's Council has accomplished in Maryland.
She has reason to be proud of the council's work: Since it was established in 1986, Maryland has seen a reduction in births to girls 18 and under by 13.7 percent and a 16.8 drop in the abortions for teen-agers. Those statistics are even more impressive in light of national trends, which show an 8 percent increase in teen pregnancy rates.
The average Marylander may know of the council only through its clever Campaign for Our Children, a public-private partnership with a Baltimore advertising agency that has produced thought-provoking ads in schools and other public places designed to encourage young people to delay sexual activity. (The media campaign has been purchased by several other state and local governments, including Arkansas, Dr. Elders' home state.)
But the council also works to ensure that if adolescents do engage in sexual activity, they do so responsibly. In other words, it couples a "just say no" campaign with recognition that not all teens will say no. The results of this broad-based approach include family life lesson plans that please parents and activists across the political spectrum -- proof that there is plenty of common ground on adolescent pregnancy for overcoming the controversial issues it often raises.
Dr. Elders will need to tap that common ground, and the path charted by Maryland's council may well be the best model for helping her do that.