Children's Fund Will Work To Reduce Teen-Age Pregnancy, Infant Mortality

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Washington--The Children's Defense Fund has launched a five-year campaign to reduce infant mortality and birth defects, stem increases in teen-age pregnancies, and promote youth self-sufficiency.

At a national conference here this month on "Adolescent and Single-Parent Families: An Action Agenda for the 1980's," the group also focused on strategies to promote school-based health clinics and to convince state legislators of the importance of child-welfare issues at a time when "the federal budget [has turned] its back on children in need," according to Marian Wright Edelman, president of the fund. cdf is a charitable organization that does child-advocacy work at the national and state levels.

"Our job is to ensure self-sufficient youth," Ms. Edelman told the gathering of state health and education officials, child-care providers, child-advocacy representatives, and members of civil-rights, women's, and religious groups. "We can win for our children."

'Logical Extension'

Gov. Richard Riley of South Carolina, speaking at the opening session of the three-day conference, echoed the theme of the prenatal-care campaign. "It is within our power to make substantial numbers of young lives more healthy," he said.

Calling the campaign "the logical extension of our unprecedented efforts in public education," the Governor termed preventive-care programs for newborns "the best long-term investment of limited state funds."

Noting that "our national problem of infant deaths is largely a Southern problem," Governor Riley nonetheless pointed out that infant mortality "is an epidemic that affects every state, not just my own."

And the Governor, who chairs the Southern Governors' Task Force on Infant Mortality, called on policymakers to turn to prevention instead of relying on "rescue strategies" to help teen-age mothers and their children.

Goals by 1990

Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey, noting that the national rate of infant mortality is 11.5 per 1,000 births, challenged his fellow governors "to dedicate ourselves to meeting the kinds of goals outlined by the Surgeon General and translate them into public policy."

(The United States' infant-mortality rate ranks 15th among the industrialized and non-industrialized countries of the world for which cdf has figures.)

The Surgeon General has proposed to reach several goals by 1990, including:

Limiting to no more than 10 percent the proportion of women in any county or racial or ethnic group who obtain no prenatal care during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Reducing the national infant-mortality rate to no more than 9 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Ensuring that no county and no racial or ethnic subgroup have an infant-mortality rate in excess of 12 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Limiting to no more than 5 percent the proportion of low-birthweight babies. Low birthweight is a leading cause of myriad complications, including developmental difficulties and infant deaths.

Ensuring that no county and no racial or ethnic group has a rate of low birthweight that exceeds 9 percent of all live births.

"Our challenge as human beings and our challenge in this conference is to create a climate in this country that will protect those children and to educate mothers to care for them," said Governor Kean, who is chairman of the National Governors' Association Committee on Human Resources.

"Society will pay again and again the price of neglecting prenatal health care," he added. "Let's make it a trend to consider a child at risk too great a risk to take."

'Epidemic Situation'

Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine and the founding director of the Salk Institute in San Diego, called on policymakers to "act now" to deal with the "epidemic" of teen-age pregnancies instead of waiting for research. He suggested pairing "successful" teen-agers--those who have avoided pregnancy--with those who are younger and more susceptible to "pass on clues to why they have been able to reject victimization."

Risks of Teen Pregnancy

cdf has chosen to focus on prenatal care because of the risks associated with teen-age pregnancy, spokesmen said. Because they are more likely to be from low-income households and to have themselves lacked adequate health care throughout childhood, teen-age mothers often enter pregnancy in poor general health, according to the cdf

And while the effects of poor health can be greatly alleviated by early, comprehensive prenatal care, large numbers of teen-age mothers receive care late in their pregnancies or not at all, the organization charges.

cdf statistics indicate that only 47 percent of black teen-agers and 57 percent of white teen-agers ages 15 to 19 received prenatal care in the first three months of their pregnancies, when much of the neurological and other systemic development of the fetus is thought to take place.

Low-Birthweight Infants

Babies born to teen-agers thus face greater health risks, according to the cdf Although births to teen-agers accounted for only 14 percent of all births in the United States in 1982, babies born to teen-agers represented 20 percent of all low-birthweight infants, defined as those weighing in at 5.5 pounds or less.

Not only are low-birthweight babies 20 times more likely to die than babies with normal birthweights, according to the defense fund's statistics, but comprehensive, early prenatal care has been shown to reduce the incidence of low birthweight by 20 percent or more.

And although infant-mortality rates have been declining since the late 1960's, recent information from the Department of Health and Human Services suggests a slowing in this downward trend.

"Over the past two decades, America has led the world in its ability to save very tiny infants from death by expensive technological advances," Ms. Edelman said. "But sadly, we lead the industrialized world in the percentage of low-birthweight babies born each year who need saving. We need to grow healthy babies by ensuring every mother prenatal care."

'A Stake in Their Future'

The campaign, according to Ms. Edelman, also represents an attempt to "help stem the tide of over half a million babies born annually to teen mothers, which locks a new generation of children into poverty."

Lorraine V. Klerman, professor of public health at the Yale School of Medicine, noted that teen-agers must be shown ways to feel needed other than through sexual experimentation and parenthood. And they should be taught about the consequences of sexual behavior, she argued.

Research has shown, she said, that teen-agers want a "directive approach to contraception"--meaning that they want to be instructed in such settings as school-based clinics. Just as there are discipline rules in schools, she said, "there are rules about sexual behavior."

Both Ms. Edelman and John Ogbu, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, agreed that adults must learn to communicate with teen-agers in ways they will understand--and not from a sociological point of view.

"Do you really think that in the inner city the black males are going to see the issues of contraception as you do?" Mr. Ogbu asked.

"We have got to find ways of going to where the teen-agers are, instead of waiting for them to come to us," Ms. Edelman said.

Vol. 04, Issue 25

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