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States Setting Initiatives To Combat Problem of Teen Pregnancies

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A Maryland task force on teen-age pregnancy has urged the state to adopt "effective" preventive measures in the hope of "dramatically" reducing the number of teen-age pregnancies.

The state now ranks fourth nationally in the percentage of babies born to unmarried teen-age mothers.

"The cost of effective prevention is high," states the final report of the Governor's Task Force on Teen Pregnancy, released this month, "but it is much lower than the cost to the state of children having children."

Maryland is among several states that have addressed the issue of teen-age pregnancy in recent months, proposing remedies that stress both pregnancy prevention and the support of pregnant teen-agers and teen parents.

Spurred by demographic data showing the dramatic dimensions of the problem nationwide, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia have also created task forces or initiatives to study ways to reduce the rate of teen-age pregnancy.

According to recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics, women between the ages of 15 and 19 account for approximately 14 percent of the annual births in the United States--and 53 percent of teen-age mothers are unmarried. (See related stories on this page.)

A study released last spring by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit population-research4group, found that the United States leads most developed nations in rates of teen-age pregnancy, abortion, and childbearing, and is the only developed country where the rate of teen-age pregnancy has been increasing.

'Values and Responsibilities'

Increased counseling in pregnancy prevention for "high-risk" teen-agers is one of several recommendations contained in the Maryland task force's report, currently under review by Gov. Harry Hughes.

But the report cites as "central to the prevention of teen pregnancy" an increased awareness of and emphasis on "individual and family values and responsibilities." Recommendations in this area rank first among the six types of prevention measures proposed by the task force.

The task force recommends, for example, that federal child-care support for children born to teen-age parents be given not to the parents themselves but to "adult caretakers," which in many cases would be the baby's grandparents. The adult caretakers would retain financial responsibility for the teen-age parents and their children until the parents "reach majority."

Of the 8,771 teen-agers who gave birth in Maryland in 1983, 68 percent were unmarried and fewer than 500 were living outside a family setting, according to Wanda L. Dobson, director of public information for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

More than half of the babies were born to teen-agers on public assistance, she said.

The report also called for efforts to address the "inequality" of educational and employment opportunities among high-risk youths, the development of school-based health clinics, and the creation of a "core services support system" to consolidate the services delivered by several state agencies to high-risk and pregnant teen-agers.

No Federal Policy

Those most closely involved in such recent state initiatives, as well as representatives from national population-control groups, cite reduced federal funding--both for programs specifically aimed at teen-age pregnancy and for social-services programs in general--as a principal reason for the increased state activity. As the states' support costs for teen-age mothers and their children rise, they say, a focus on prevention has become increasingly important.

"The federal government is not taking a clear position," said Judith Senderowitz, executive director of the Center for Population Options. "It is not saying: 'It's not good for kids to have kids."'

At the same time, Ms. Senderowitz suggested, the public has begun to view the problem as an increasingly serious one.

"The issue has surfaced to the point where people are more willing to deal with it," she said. "And awareness is the key thing. People now understand that they have to attack the problem by preventing it."

'Life Planning'

But experts in the field agree that preventive measures must link motivation with awareness.

Karen Pittman, director of the adolescent pregnancy-prevention clearinghouse for the Children's Defense Fund, said that sex-education counseling for teen-agers has changed its focus from the rudiments of biology and contraception to the realities of parenting.

Courses that used to be referred to as "plumbing"--the basics of reproduction--have given way to "life planning," she said.

Life-planning programs attempt to help teen-agers put sexual activity, pregnancy, and parenting "in the context of other choices they have to make in their lives," Ms. Pittman explained.

According to Ms. Senderowitz, counseling that details the diminished educational and employment opportunities teen-age parents can expect often has more of an impact than pregnancy counseling that concentrates on the health risks to teen-age mothers and their infants.

Health issues, she said, are "serious, but not strong enough to prevent teen-agers from having sex."

But according to the cdc's Ms. Pittman, the recent growth in efforts aimed at preventing teen-age pregnancy may not be fully addressing a fundamental feature of the problem: the "disparity" between the lives of middle-class and low-income teen-agers.

The options presented to teen-agers in life-planning counseling--the choice between early parenting and further growth through education and employment--are often, she said, "in reality not there for low-income kids." And, she noted, these are the teen-agers most at risk of becoming teen-age parents.

Last May, the report from a special panel on teen-age pregnancy in the District of Columbia--a metropolitan area ranking among the nation's top five in rates of teen-age childbearing--put the dilemma this way: "Lack of opportunity, lack of training and education, will often result in a picture where there is no conceptualization of the future."

"To a 16-year-old who's a grade or two behind in school and already facing high unemployment," Ms. Pittman explained, life-planning arguments may ring false.

Among other teen-pregnancy programs under way:

The Tennessee Rainbow Coalition Youth Task Force, a political organization formed during the 1984 Presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson, announced this month that it is launching a campaign to cut the number of teen-age pregnancies in Tennessee by 50 percent by next year. Part of its efforts will include, it said, a "trilateral partnership" among schools, churches, and families in many of the state's local communities.

A Holyoke, Mass., clinic run by a Catholic religious order has received a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to combat the area's high infant-mortality rate by providing better counseling and health services to teen-age mothers.

Financed through hhs's adolescent-pregnancy program, the Holyoke center will also promote adoption as "a positive option for pregnant adolescents," according to John M. Guimond, the center's director for public affairs.

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