Seven months pregnant and 17, Amanda Smisek received a court summons last spring charging her with a crime she had never learned about in high school: fornication.
"My mom went down to the library and looked it up in the dictionary," Smisek said last week after bottle-feeding her newborn son, Tyler. "Nobody ever told us it was illegal for two people of the same age to do that."As communities around the nation search for ways to curb teen-age pregnancies, some have opted for more sex education in high schools, some for easier access to contraceptives, and some for stiffer enforcement of statutory rape laws. Orange County, in Southern California, is promoting a modern brand of shotgun marriage in which some adult fathers face marriage or jail.
Here in Gem County, Douglas R. Varie, the county's prosecuting attorney, last spring dusted off the state's 1921 law prohibiting fornication, or, as the statute defines it, sex between unmarried people of the opposite sex.
"Children having children impose a heavy burden on society," Varie, a 33-year-old elected official, wrote in an open letter of explanation to residents here. "It's a sad thing for a child to only know his or her natural father as someone who had a good time with his mother in the back seat of a car."
Pushing communities to action is concern that the United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rate of almost all major industrialized nations, according to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. About 12 percent of all births in the United States are to teenage girls. Most of the fathers are over 18.
This national problem is no stranger to Gem County, a blue-collar corner of sagebrush, cherry orchards, cattle ranches, a lumber mill and a drag strip in western Idaho, just over a mountain pass from Boise. Gem County's rate of 84 pregnancies per 1,000 teenagers is slightly lower than the national average, but about 50 percent higher than Idaho's average.
As part of an effort to restore social opprobrium to teenage pregnancy, Smisek became the first of about 10 pregnant teenage girls who have been charged with fornication, along with their boyfriends, after the prosecutor was alerted to the pregnancies by teachers, family members or social workers.
The teenage girls and their boyfriends usually pleaded guilty. Smisek opted for a trial before a Juvenile Court judge, and her lawyer argued, unsuccessfully, that the statute was being selectively applied.
At the first prosecution, of Smisek, protests erupted, with pickets on the courthouse lawn. At a protest over Smisek's sentencing, in May, one woman held a sign reading, "She's pregnant, why make her criminal?"
In response, Varie noted that juvenile records were automatically sealed when a convicted teenager turned 18. The sentences for Smisek and her 16-year-old boyfriend, Chris Lay, did not call for jail time or fines; they are designed to channel the teenagers into responsible parenthood. Placed on probation for three years, the couple are required to attend parenting classes together, to complete their high school educations, to stay employed and to stay off drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Violations of probation are dealt with through counseling rather than jail.
Juanita Goslin, a longtime friend of the Smisek family and a participant in the protest, fumed one day last week: "What makes me mad is that old law states `anyone' - it doesn't state `teenagers.' That's discrimination."
That objection is echoed in Boise, the state capital 35 miles southeast of here, by Jack Van Valkenburgh, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.
"To the extent that the prosecutions are targeting teenagers, and the law applies to everybody, it is selective prosecution, and it denies equal protection of the law," he said. "We just don't think that it is appropriate for the heavy hand of government to get involved in consensual behavior."
Unmoved, the county prosecutor responds: "To those who say that prohibiting teenage sexual activity is too much of an intrusion on the personal freedoms of juveniles, consider how we limit the freedoms of minors already."
In Idaho, he said, young people under the age of 18 cannot buy cigarettes, buy alcohol or marry without parental consent. Youths cannot drive a car until they are 14 or drop out of school until they are 16.
The prosecutor's supporters here say he is trying to restore a lost sense of shame that went with teenage pregnancy out of wedlock.
"We have higher standards than some of your faster metropolitan areas," said Mark D. John, the county sheriff, warily eyeing a visitor from Denver. A part-time rancher whose belt buckle is shaped like a miniature pistol, the sheriff said that no girls had become pregnant when he went to high school near here in the 1950s.
But down at Emmett's igloo-shaped high school, the impact of the anti-fornication campaign seems mixed.
Duane Horning, the principal, spent most of an afternoon last week meeting with parents about revising the school's sex education course.
"Students weren't aware of the laws regarding sexual behavior, and a lot of parents weren't either," the principal said, speaking in his office, which is decorated with John Wayne posters. The fornication prosecutions, he added, "got a lot of publicity, but I don't think they are discouraging kids from having sex."
Similar views were voiced by a knot of cheerleaders as they waited to board a bus with the school team, the Huskies.
"Forn-if-cation?" Becky Harris, a 17-year-old junior, repeated quizzically. "What's that?"
Kathleen Green, another junior, clued her in, then added: "I don't see any lesson out of it. People are going to do it, no matter what."
Green, whose sister got pregnant while in high school, added: "Just leave them alone. If they want to be moms, that's their choice."
Trina Wade, a 15-year-old sophomore, complained that the law was being enforced only in Gem County.
"It's not fair - if you live here, you get charged," she said. "If you live a few miles away, in another town, you won't be charged."
About half of Idaho high school seniors have had sex at least once, according to the results of a statewide survey conducted last year. In a separate poll of Boise High School students conducted last month, 79 percent said they wanted an improved sex education program.