A better message on teen pregnancy; Community leaders focus on economic and emotional costs


As teen pregnancy rates fall to their lowest levels in decades, religious leaders and family planning advocates -- who once fought bitterly over what messages should be sent about teen sexuality -- are finding quiet ways to work together to keep kids from having kids.

With slogans such as "A baby costs $474 a month. How much is your allowance?" and "You can always say no, even if you've said yes before," community leaders around the country are agreeing on broad messages that step over the troubled waters of whether teens are having sex and onto the more unified ground of the economic and emotional consequences of teen pregnancy.

"People who were in foxholes rolling grenades at each other for years have found a basis for mutual cooperation," said William A. Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs and chairman of the Religion and Public Values task force of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

"I think a lot of people believe as a society we've been sending a clearer message to teen-agers about this," Galston said. "The message to young people is: Your teen years are the right time for growing up, getting educated, getting a start in life. It's the wrong time to conceive or participate in conceiving an infant you're not likely to be able to care for."

Statistics released last month by the National Center for Health Statistics show teen birth and pregnancy rates for girls from 15 to 19 years old have fallen by about 18 percent around the country from 1991 to 1998.

The numbers have been particularly meaningful in Maryland, a leading state for teen pregnancy in the 1980s that now ranks about 30th among states, with 43.9 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 in 1997, the most recent year for which state rankings have been compiled. In 1991, Maryland had 54.3 births per 1,000 teens.

It is not clear how much the new messages, disseminated nationally by groups such as the Baltimore-based Campaign for Our Children, have contributed to those numbers.

Fear of the AIDS virus and increasingly convenient methods of contraception, such as long-lasting injections including Depo Provera, have been major contributors to the decrease, experts and teen-agers say. Also, prevention programs have been aimed at younger children during the past decade.

There's a new focus on the role of parents. "Plain Talk," a five-city initiative of Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation, has concentrated on getting adults to become "askable parents," comfortable with helping their children get practical information about how to prevent pregnancy.

More information?

Some worry that many of the broader messages, spurred in part by a flood of new federal money for abstinence programs, leave out too much information needed by the estimated 50 percent of teens who are sexually active at age 17.

"We've always said the 100 percent safe way to prevent sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy is don't have sex," said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood of America.

"What gets obscured is the full information young people should have. What we know is that maybe 10 percent of the schools in this country offer truly comprehensive sex education programs. That's not enough."

At the Southwestern Family Support Center in Baltimore's Southwestern High School, where young mothers can leave their children in licensed day care while they go to school, the national decline in teen pregnancy seems unreal. The center, which can accept 22 children, typically has a waiting list of more than a dozen girls.

Kelli Lewis, a pensive 17-year-old senior, illustrates how thorny the prevention problem still is.

After giving birth to daughter Kaela, now 21 months old, she resolved to abstain from sex, determined not to put herself in that situation again. That lasted a year, and she is pregnant with her second child.

"This one is a different situation," she said, explaining that she and the new baby's father live together. "I'm more prepared for this one."

Raven Taylor, 18, said her reluctance to have sex was broken down by an older boyfriend who said he wanted to see her in maternity clothes.

"He just pumped my head up," Taylor said of the father of her 18-month-old son Davon, a man to whom she no longer speaks. "He kept saying, 'When you going to have my baby?' Then when I told him I was pregnant, it was like, 'So?' "

Consistent messages

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has been holding seminars around the country to try to unite a wide range of leaders around consistent messages to prevent more pregnancies. Their theme: "While the adults are arguing, teens are getting pregnant."

Helen Alvare, a representative of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, said progress has been made. "In terms of the positive exhortations -- why it is so good for you to abstain -- we can agree with those messages," she said.

The 1996 law that introduced welfare reform released $250 million for state programs that teach that abstinence until marriage "is the expected standard for all school-age children."

Last month, students carried across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco more than 100,000 cards pledging abstinence until marriage, part of a national campaign called "True Love Waits."

Maryland officials have gotten into the abstinence act, holding their first abstinence conference, "Winning Choices," in August for teens, parents and professionals to discuss delaying sexual activity.

For 12 years, Maryland has run an ad campaign developed by Campaign for Our Children in local media and middle schools, targeting children as young as 9. The campaign has advertising and education programs in all 50 states.

"There's no such thing as a bad program. They're all good, and they all have a place," said Hal Donofrio, executive director of Campaign for Our Children. "[But] the only programs that are going to be acceptable to the general public, and therefore to the political leadership, will have abstinence as their foundation."

To 18-year-old Ayauna Talbott, a Southwestern student and mother, expecting teens to delay sex is unrealistic.

"I'm going to do what I want to do," Talbott said. "I wish I would have listened."

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