Commentary Magazine


Teen-age Pregnancy

To the Editor:

I take great issue with André Ryerson’s appraisal of Risking the Future, edited by Cheryl D. Hayes [Books in Review, May]. As a PhD. candidate in social welfare, I have studied the problem of teen-age pregnancy for many years and I have also worked with teen-agers, both pregnant and non-pregnant, in a variety of settings.

Mr. Ryerson objects to the National Research Council’s recommendation that contraception be made readily available for sexually-active teen-agers. Instead, he argues for the value of “sexual restraint” (i.e., abstinence) and accuses the book of being “another symptom of the problem it sets out to address.”

In my opinion, as well as in the opinion of many social scientists . . ., to advocate abstinence as the sole means to reduce teen-age pregnancy is . . . unrealistic. It is an approach that has not worked, as shown by the continuing high incidence of teen-age pregnancy in the United States. In contrast, the countries of Western Europe (as well as Canada) which have experienced dramatically lower rates of teen-age pregnancy have accepted the fact that many of their teenagers are sexually active (at rates comparable to those of the U.S.) without necessarily condoning such behavior. Their approach has been to provide sexuality education as well as easily accessible low-cost or free contraceptive services to sexually active young people.

Mr. Ryerson refers to what he terms “a morally responsible course of action.” But is it morally responsible to allow de facto, by our inaction, about 10 percent of our teen-agers to experience a pregnancy each year because these teen-agers are not abiding by standards of behavior that some adults have set for them?

Mr. Ryerson implies that the authors of Risking the Future do not call for abstinence . . . to lessen the incidence of teen-age pregnancy, yet the authors clearly do recommend this course of action in several places. They suggest “a strategy to help teen-agers, both male and female, develop ways to postpone sexual initiation.” In their section on preventive interventions they propose programs that impart knowledge and/or influence attitudes, and an important attitude change they propose is abstinence. In their section on priorities for policies and programs they again call for delaying the initiation of sexual activity. . . . It seems that Mr. Ryerson’s objection is that other approaches are considered as well, including encouraging contraception for those teen-agers who are sexually active and providing alternatives to adolescent childbearing and child-rearing. . . .

The policies advocated by the authors seem to me to be sound as well as consistent with the positions advanced by others who have worked in preventing teen-age pregnancy. To the limited extent that these policies have been implemented, they have been successful in reducing the incidence of pregnancy among adolescents.

Therefore, instead of being a symptom, as Mr. Ryerson suggests, I believe that Risking the Future . . . offers feasible strategies for addressing the problem.

Barbara K. Epstein
Cleveland, Ohio

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André Ryerson writes:

Barbara K. Epstein has misunderstood some of my arguments, and missed others. I did not take a stand against making contraception available to teen-agers, nor did I argue that encouraging young teens to postpone sexual intercourse until they have reached greater physical and psychological maturity is “the sole means” to confront the epidemic in teen pregnancies. It is, however, the approach most historically effective in diverse cultures, and the most widely approved by American parents. These parents, furthermore, have a right to ask that a completely different set of signals not be given their children the moment they enter a public school. This centrally involves parental rights, not mere social-science prescription. It astonishes me that the authors of Risking the Future, like Miss Epstein and countless social scientists, have no grasp of this key aspect of the problem.

It is one thing for a private agency to which individuals may choose to go (like Planned Parenthood) to offer birth-control information and devices; it is quite another to install equivalent services and encourage their use in public schools which children are required by law to attend. This legal imposition by a public institution whose bills are paid by a diverse citizenry imposes restraints on action respecting which too many social-science professionals, regrettably, appear completely ignorant. As in the case of “peace education,” a public-service sector is allowing its own enthusiasms to ride roughshod over the rights of those it is paid to serve. The result may reasonably be called coercive social engineering.

Miss Epstein points out (as I did in my review) that the authors of Risking the Future cite approaches “to postpone sexual initiation” as a desirable policy goal. They could hardly have done otherwise. But they add that there are few programs currently pursuing this approach, and so “there is little evidence to document [its] effectiveness.” The obvious answer, one might think, would be to recommend such programs, which would have the advantage of enjoying the wide support of parents. Instead, general dissemination of contraceptive pills is recommended, along with abortion counseling and services, maternity education and guidance for teen mothers in the schools, so that fourteen-year-olds “should have a complete set of options available without the interposition of moral hounding.” The reason for this approach is that the panel of experts in question prefers “kindness rather than exhortation, and research rather than denial.” The policy direction is clear.

Miss Epstein ignores the evidence found in Risking the Future (as do its authors) that convincing fourteen-year-olds to use contraceptives is a daunting task, since “young teen-agers are handicapped in assessing the personal risk of pregnancy because of their cognitive immaturity.” Worthy of thought as well is the fact that the contraceptive method preferred by the authors of Risking the Future, the pill, is not known to be of any value in preventing herpes or AIDS, both of which rage at disproportionate rates in the very urban populations where teen pregnancy is most uncontrolled. One would expect doctors, who number among the report’s authors, to have borne such risks in mind.

What is involved here, on the one hand, is a failure of common sense and moral nerve, not in ordinary Americans but in the elites that presume to guide them; and, on the other hand, a readiness in social scientists and teachers to impose solutions they favor without regard to the limits on state power which Americans have long considered to be their birthright.

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