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October 9, 1999
Column #945


     NEW YORK ''Why have three decades of intensive national effort to reduce teen pregnancy not been more successful? Largely because...we have framed the problem falsely. What we called our `teen pregnancy' crisis is not really about teenagers. Nor is it really about pregnancy.  It is about the decline of marriage.''

     These are the profound words of Maggie Gallagher in new report of the Institute for American Values, ''The Age of Unwed Mothers: Is Teen Pregnancy the Problem?''

     She notes that the teen birth rate is actually much lower now than it was in the 1950s when many teens married and began their families young. ''It is the unwed birthrate that has grown rapidly enough to earn the label `epidemic.'''

     Two-fifths of American teenagers will become pregnant, a rate that is nine times that of the Netherlands, four-fold that of Sweden and 65 percent higher than Great Britain. That's why our society invests considerable energy to reduce the 376,000 births to single teen mothers.

     ''Yet we pay comparatively little attention - indeed, it often seems that as a society we are stone-cold silent - regarding the 439,000 births that same year to single mothers in their early 20s. Are we against the former but indifferent to the later?'' she asks.

     Gallagher wisely notes the prospects of the unmarried mother aged 20-22 ''resemble single teen mothers more than they resemble adult married mothers. The great divide regarding economic status and emotional well-being is clearly between single and married mothers.'' A child of a single mother is five times as likely to be poor as a married couple, twice as likely to drop out of school and two to three times as likely to wind up in jail.

     Urie Bronfenbrenner, a family scholar, reports that fatherless children are more likely to be hyperactive, to lack attentiveness in the classroom, have ''difficulty in deferring gratification, impaired academic performance, school misbehavior, absenteeism, dropping out...and especially the teenage syndrome of behaviors that tend to hang together - smoking, drinking early and frequent sexual experience, a cynical attitude toward work, adolescent pregnancy, and in the more extreme cases, drugs, suicide, vandalism, violence and criminal acts.''

     Therefore, why is our message to teenagers limited to a call for abstaining from sex ''until you are older,'' or to ''use contraceptives?'' If she waits to have a baby until she is 21, that child will be no better off than if she is an 18 year-old mother.

     What's the answer if a young woman asks, ''Why should I wait to have a baby?''

     Neither counselors nor high school texts reply, ''You should wait until you are married to a man who is committed to you for life. He can be the father of your baby and give that child its best possible chance for success in life.''

     The result? If teenage girls are asked if they'd consider having a child without being married, ''fewer than half answer unambiguously answer `no,''' reports Gallagher.

     What if she is pregnant out-of-wedlock? In the early 1970s, almost 47 percent of single teens married before the child was born. Twenty years later, the figure plunged to 16 percent. In fact, counselors often advise pregnant young woman not to marry the father. Why? It is true that those who marry as teenagers have higher divorce rates than those marrying in their 20s.  ''Still, about half of all marriages contracted by young adult teens do succeed, compared to 70 percent of first marriages that take place at age 23 or older.

     While this is a mixed picture, marriage so improves the prospects of the young mother and child, her failure to marry the child's father dooms her future. ''For many of these young women, marrying the baby's father represent not only their best chance for marital success, but also, after all, their only real chance to give their baby the gift of fatherhood,'' Gallagher writes.

     What of the adoption option? In 1971, 18 percent of unmarried white mothers gave their children up for adoption; only 3 percent do so today.

     Sadly, not even pro-life counseling centers urge pregnant young women to marry the father or to allow adoption. Nor are many churches and families doing so. They are falsely telling the young woman she can bring the child up satisfactorily on her own.

     It is a lie that must stop.

     The 35,000 babies born to girls aged 15 or under should all be adopted. Fully 58 percent of white teens would consider adoption if they believed the baby ''would have a better chance in life with another family.''

     Four-fifths of white and black teen mothers say they love their partners. Churches and grandparents should encourage the older ones to marry and help them be successful.

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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