FEWER TEENS are having sex and fewer teens are having babies, the latest health statistics say, meaning these worrisome numbers have been in steady decline for about a decade now.
Happy news indeed, until you look up from the pages of these reports and see that the United States has double the teen birth rate of England, nearest the United States on the list of industrialized countries.
"We still have a long way to go," says Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "A million teens are still giving birth in this country every year. That is way too high.
"We want parents who are mature and economically suited to take care of children, and teens are not."
Maryland has had notable success reducing teen birth rates -- 46 live births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, compared to 54 nationally. But those statistics look shameful when compared to European countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands, where the number is 10 or less per 1,000.
Four in 10 American women become pregnant before the age of 20. The economic future for them and their children is abysmal, as bad as the economic drain they will be on the rest of the country, estimated to be more than $30 billion annually.
Because the news from the front is encouraging but the battle is still so far from over, the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, in cooperation with Campaign for Our Children, will launch today a media blitz aimed at convincing teens to postpone sexual activity.
"Maryland's rates are still falling and they are coming down faster than national figures," says Patti Flowers-Coulson, director of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy.
"We're happy with that trend, but there is still a lot of work to do."
For the next six to eight weeks, buses, billboards and radio and television stations in Maryland will carry throat-lumping, goose-bumping ads produced by CFOC that urge parents to talk to their kids about sex and urge kids to think about all the things that are possible if they don't have a baby before they have a driver's license.
"We are trying to change perceptions and that's where a media campaign is so important," says Flowers-Coulson. "We want to make it respectable to wait to have sex. We want to counteract the pressure kids get from the media and from their peers."
Eller Media in Baltimore, under general manager Charles Marino, donated more than $1 million in billboard and bus and subway poster space to the campaign; television stations WMAR, WBFS, WNUV and WUTB have kicked in air time.
"They happily agreed," says Hal Donofrio, chairman of Richardson, Myers & Donofrio, a Baltimore advertising and public relations firm, and founder of CFOC. For 12 years, he has commingled his talents and contacts in the business with his personal convictions to reduce teen pregnancy.
"We would spend more than $1.5 million on what we are doing," Donofrio says of the largely pro bono campaign. "Prevention is the only thing we can afford in this country, considering the high cost of teen pregnancy. And prevention is education. Education is mass media."
The ad campaign urges parents to talk their kids about sex, but it is the kids who are making that plea. "Talk to me," the compelling children say into the camera lens.
"I like the encouragement it gives parents," says Townsend of the ads. "We can't put all of this responsibility on the teen-agers."
The other ads show young girls daydreaming about all they can do in life if they don't get pregnant. "There's no guarantee that I'll grow up to cure cancer, write the great American novel, run my own company, have the world at my feet . . . but if I give myself a chance, the time, a future, you never know," the young girls say.
"We're not browbeating kids," said Flowers-Coulson. "We're trying to present a positive, hopeful view of the future. 'Be sensible. Look what you can do.' "
It might be that hopeful view of the future -- possible in these robust economic times -- that motivates kids to avoid the risk of pregnancy. It is hard to know these things.
Perhaps the essay contest for teens, which is part of this campaign, will reveal some of what kids think. But we may never understand what is causing more of them to wait.
"It might be a couple of things," says Townsend. "A much stronger national message that says, 'Don't get pregnant.' And a greater national understanding that we have to take responsibility for our actions."
Whatever the reason, Maryland and the CFOC have decided that this is no time to sit back and light up a congratulatory cigar. It is time to push harder.
"I believe this campaign will support those kids who are already on track to making responsible decisions," says Flowers-Coulson.
"But I want all of the kids to look at these ads and say, 'They are right, I am worth it.' "
Pub Date: 2/09/99