clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Teen pregnancy high on list of country's social problems

Teen pregnancy has reached epidemic proportions in this country, say the experts:

- Last year, according to the Allen Guttmaker Institute, two out of every five teenage girls became pregnant.- In 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 505,524 females under the age of 20 gave birth; two-thirds of the births were unplanned.

- Teen pregnancy rates in Utah are below national averages, but 42 out of every 1,000 births occur to females between the ages of 15 and 19.

- Earlier this year, President Clinton said that after four years in the White House seeing what was going on in the country, he would put teenage pregnancy at the top of the list of America's social problems.

"None stands in the way of achieving our goals for America more than the epidemic of teen pregnancy," he said in a radio address. "We know that children who are born to teen parents are more likely to drop out of school, get involved in crime and drugs and end up in poverty."

And while he noted that there had been a slight decline in recent years - an 8 percent decline between 1991 and 1995 - "the teen pregnancy rate is still intolerably high in America. Too many children are still having children. So we must do more."

It is an issue not only with moral implications, but with economic and social ones as well.

A landmark 1996 study by the Robin Hood Foundation, a New York charity, found that taxpayers spent approximately $7 billion last year to deal with social problems resulting from births by girls under 18.

The study found that teenage childbearing cost an additional $2.2 billion annually in welfare and food-stamp benefits, $1.5 billion in medical-care costs, $900 million in increased foster-care expenses and $1 billion for additional prison construction.

The study also concluded that governments lost about $1.3 billion a year in tax revenue from the reduced productivity of women who bear children as teens.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that the adverse effects of an early pregnancy on both the young mother and her infant make teenage pregnancy a pressing health problem.

A mother who is under 16 years of age, for example, is more likely to suffer anemia during pregnancy, more likely to suffer from toxemia, more likely to start labor prematurely and to have a prolonged and difficult labor.

A baby born to a mother under 16 is three times more likely than the child of a mother age 20-24 to die in the first year of life; is more than twice as likely to be born weighing less than 51/2 pounds, a birth weight that carries predictable and often serious health problems; and babies born to girls under 15 have three times the number of brain and nervous system disorders.

The adverse consequences of teenage childbearing also include increased poverty for both mother and child. A teenage mother is more likely to drop out of school, may have difficulty finishing school and developing skills that lead to higher paying jobs. At best, high school dropouts can expect to earn half the income of college graduates. Many teen mothers and their children end up living below the poverty line, even with federal assistance.

And marriage is no guarantee that things will be better; even when teens marry following a pregnancy, half of all teenage marriages end in divorce within five years, says the DHHS.

Teenage pregnancy is a problem with long-term consequences and no simple solutions. But increasing recognition of those consequences has prompted a number of initiatives on state and federal levels, including controversial welfare reform measures; calls for incentives for states that reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing and for stricter enforcement of child support laws; and an increased look at building partnerships with businesses, religious leaders and community groups who are struggling with the problem.

Education is an important part of these initiatives. Clinton has promised increased support for programs "where young people teach their peers about abstinence and responsibility." And, he said, we need to "spread the word about these programs so that what works in one community can be tried quickly in another."

Everyone, he said, "needs to help us send the strongest message: It's wrong to be pregnant or father a child unless you are married and ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood."

For many teens, early pregnancy is a cycle that began with their parents, but many, many factors are involved. Such things as early dating patterns, lack of information about reproduction and pregnancy prevention, low self-esteem, low socio-economic status, low educational expectations and families with weak or non-existent religious affiliation have all been shown to have correlation.

In Utah, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, the teenage pregnancy rate has declined 12 percent from 1991 to 1995 - out of every 1000 births the number occurring to females age 15-19 went from 48.2 to 42.4.

That is both good news and a challenge, says Marie Larson, teacher of the Adult Roles class at Cache High in Logan where a part of the curriculum is a look at teen pregnancy.

Education alone won't solve the problem, she says, but it is a vitally important part of the equation. The trend is encouraging, but the numbers are still higher than anyone would like to see.

"We probably won't ever get them all. Some kids will always think, `it won't happen to me' - that's part of the magical thought processes of teenagers. But maybe some will realize, `Wow! I'm going to have to change my behavior.' "

All the statistics show are how many they didn't reach, she says; it's much harder to tell how many they did. But those are the lives that are richer for it.