Books: The ‘Human Faces’ of Teenage Pregnancy

By Fred R. Harris — February 15, 1989 5 min read

When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing
By Leon Dash

William Morrow and Company Inc., 105 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; 270 pp., $18.95 cloth.

Hope is one of the best contraceptives. This insight, first suggested by the Children’s Defense Fund, is a central conclusion to be drawn from the depressing but worthwhile new book by Leon Dash, When Children Want Children.

Yet that was not at all the lesson that Mr. Dash, a reporter for The Washington Post, expected to draw when he began his live-in study of teenage pregnancy in a black ghetto in Washington. The dramatic series of articles that resulted from the 17-month project was the basis for his book.

“I assumed,” Mr. Dash writes, “that the high incidence of teenage pregnancy among poor, black, urban youths nationwide grew out of youthful ignorance about birth-control methods and adolescent reproductive capabilities.”

“I also thought the girls were falling victim to cynical manipulation by the boys, although the numbers of babies born to adolescent girls appeared to be awfully high for this to be the dominant pattern.”

“I was wrong on all counts,” he says.

When the young women he interviewed trusted him enough, they told him the truth.

“In time,” he writes, “it became clear that for many girls in the poverty-stricken community of Washington Highlands, a baby is a tangible achievement in an otherwise dreary and empty future.”

Mr. Dash heard Sherita Dreher, a black teenage mother, tell a blue-ribbon panel on teenage4pregnancy prevention that she had become sexually active with a 16-year-old boyfriend when she was 15 and that she had gotten pregnant at that age because of her ignorance about birth control. But this testimony was not the truth.

When--after many interviews--Mr. Dash had gained her confidence, she admitted to him that she had known all about contraception. Her mother had died, she told him, her relationship with her boyfriend was falling apart, and she had actually decided to get pregnant on purpose.

Sherita Dreher’s brother forced her to visit an abortion clinic. But she privately informed the doctor that she was there against her will, and she left--afterwards falsely telling her brother that the doctor had said her pregnancy was too advanced for an abortion.

Her son, Marquis, was born in good health, but for this teenage mother, as for the others, hardly anything else worked out as planned. The boyfriend-father soon went to prison, and Sherita Dreher dropped out of school. She moved 16 times during the next two years--until she was lucky enough to be taken in by her father’s former wife.

Unlike most of the teenage mothers in Mr. Dash’s account, she did finally return to high school and finish. But her future--and that of Marquis--still looked as bleak as her past.

Sixteen-year-old Tauscha Vaughn at first swore to Mr. Dash that, unlike some of her friends, she would never have a child until she was more mature, married, and economically secure. But within a month of that conversation, she was trying to get pregnant.

“I wanted something of my own,” she explained. “‘Cause every time I love somebody or something I get hurt someway, somehow, some form or fashion.”

Her tubal pregnancy had to be terminated, but it ruined her life anyway. Unemployed herself and with her boyfriend able to hold only a menial position, Tauscha Vaughn dropped out of school and out of sight.

Ignorance of birth control was not the cause of these pregnancies.

Nor was the desire for an increased welfare check a motivation for multiple pregnancies: Mr. Dash found that welfare-dependent families know quite well that “the stipend is never enough toel10lcarry one child through an entire month, much less a large family.”

Himself black, Mr. Dash found that he also had been wrong in believing that he could cover this story as an uninvolved observer, the way he had once reported on politics and wars in Africa. In fact, he discovered that he increasingly cared about the six families he finally decided to focus on and worried about what would become of them. He makes us care about them, too.

And he admits to making a big mistake in thinking that he could rely on the first stories told him by the teenage mothers. His editor, Bob Woodward, forced him to go back--and back again--and rehash the same topics with his interviewees. This seemingly redundant procedure proved vital: The final stories were much different from the original ones.

But Mr. Dash was not mistaken about the dimensions of the problem. It is true that teenage births have been declining--from 68 out of a thousand births in 1970 to 51 out of a thousand in 1985. But the number of unmarried teenage mothers is increasing--from about 92,000 in 1960 to nearly 280,000 in 1983, a threefold increase. American teenagers are twice as likely to become pregnant as their French, English, or Canadian counterparts.

Neither was Mr. Dash wrong in associating teenage pregnancy with poverty. He was well aware of the findings of the Children’s Defense Fund: “Poor teens are two and a half times more likely to become teen parents than are non-poor teens. Because of the higher rates of poverty suffered by minority groups, minority teens also have a higher rate of teen pregnancy and parenthood.”

He correctly understood the detrimental effects of teenage pregnancies on society. Teenage parents drop out of school at high rates, making it more unlikely that they will be able to support themselves and become productive citizens. And their children are highly likely to be caught in poverty as well.

Primarily a descriptive book, When Children Want Children is exceptionally effective because it puts human faces on human problems; it forces us to think in terms of living, suffering people, instead of numbers and percentages.

Mr. Dash found that the causes of the alarming teenage pregnancy rates--and thus the solutions--are not simple, and his book does not offer a detailed prescription for addressing these problems.

But his findings show the wisdom of the two broad strategies recommended by the Children’s Defense Fund: “The first is information, counseling, and services to avoid pregnancy. The second is skills, self-esteem, experiences, and opportunities that give teens enough hope for their future to provide a solid reason to delay parenthood. Neither approach will work without the other.”

A former U.S. Senator from Oklahoma and member of the Kerner Commission, Fred R. Harris is professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. He recently co-edited Quiet Riots: Race and Poverty in the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Books: The ‘Human Faces’ of Teenage Pregnancy