Commentary

The Black Community and Teen-Age Pregnancy

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The number of early and unplanned births among black teen-age girls has reached near epidemic proportions. It seriously threatens the stability of the black family.

Black teen-age parenthood is by no means a new phenomenon; black women have always tended to begin childbearing during their teens and early 20's. And certainly teen-age pregnancy creates problems for any adolescent, black or white.

But studies show that black teen-agers were involved in 55 percent of all out-of-wedlock births and 31 percent of all abortions in 1981 and that over 550,000 black 15- to 19-year-old girls have become pregnant in each of the last several years, a number far out of proportion to the percentage of blacks in the general population.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the rate of births among black women 14 or younger is increasing. The institute also reports that 83 percent of births to black teen-agers in 1978 occurred outside of marriage. Moreover, fewer teen-agers are giving their children up for adoption.

The consequences of early childbearing are often devastating to teen-age mothers and their babies. Adolescent mothers complete less schooling and often receive poor prenatal care, which in turn exposes them to significant medical risks. Unwed teen-age mothers who marry out of a desire to legitimize a pregnancy suffer a high incidence of marital disruption, and they often spend an extended period of time as a single parent. Women who had their first baby as teen-agers also have lower-status occupations, accumulate less work experience, receive lower hourly wages, and earn less annually than older women who have children out of wedlock.

It's not surprising, then, that in 1980 more than 42 percent of black households were headed by women and that more than half of the federal budget for "welfare"--Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)--goes to women who had their first baby in their teens, while 71 percent of all mothers under 30 years of age who receive AFDC benefits had their first baby during their teens.

Christopher Tietze, in his books Teenage Pregnancies: Looking Ahead to 1984 and Family Planning Perspectives, has estimated that, if current teen-age-pregnancy rates prevail, about four out of 10 of today's black 14-year-old girls will have experienced at least one pregnancy before they reach age 20, and one in five will have had one or more pregnancies by age 18.

Understandably, discussions about teen-age pregnancy tend to focus on the girls who bear the children. But if the problem of adolescent pregnancy within the black community is to be addressed successfully, far more attention must be paid to the attitudes and circumstances of the other half of the equation--young black males.

Studies suggest that those black males who have played a role in teen-age pregnancies are young (ages 15 to 21), unemployed, low academic achievers, and have very low levels of self esteem. They also are strongly influenced by the environment in which they live.

The unwritten code of the black ghetto is "manhood" and "respect." Manhood in such an environment means never having to say you're sorry, to "back down," or to "take low" to anybody, even when you're wrong. It means that you show no signs of weakness or compromise on any issue, privately or publicly. Respect is earned by dressing well, driving a big car, being popular with women, and having money. Clearly, many boys "get girls pregnant" to manifest their manhood.

I am sure that racism and the inability to find a job have contributed to the feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy felt by young black males. The unemployment rates continue to be more than twice as high for black adults as for white adults (9.7 percent for whites and 20.2 percent for blacks) and, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, 53.7 percent of black male youths are without work, compared to 22.6 percent of white male youths.

Nonetheless, the black community must somehow redefine "manhood" and "respect" if the self-destructive attitudes of many young blacks are to be changed.

The black community must also re-evaluate its old positions on teen-age pregnancy. In the past, blacks have been generally ambivalent about family-planning programs. State legislative proposals and a major federal initiative to get more black women to use birth control were seen by many in the black community as repressive and discriminatory.

But despite legitimate fears that such politics might be perverted into efforts by the white majority to control the size of the black population and to inhibit freedom of choice among black women, the epidemic of teen-age pregnancy among blacks will only worsen if the problem is neglected by those who have the most at stake--the black community.

We need to go back to "basics" and to re-emphasize community organization and the pride that such programs engender. We need to promote career counseling and goal-oriented clubs. It serves no purpose to try to curtail discussion of the issue with the assertion that the system works against blacks and that pregnancy among teen-age blacks is the inevitable consequence of discrimination. Discrimination is a crutch that we must throw away.

Black clergy members must preach the need for responsible parenting. They must use their churches to assemble young people during the week and to develop a cadre of young leaders to impart the message of responsibility.

Black leaders must organize a coalition of black professionals, fraternities and sororities, social clubs, and civil-rights organizations and declare war on teen-age pregnancy. They must negotiate with the school systems across the nation to ensure that the characteristics of responsible parenthood become a part of the curriculum in every school.

My charge is for the black community to reach out and be responsive to an issue that tears at the stability of the black family.

Vol. 02, Issue 32, Page 18

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