But can we prevent wanted pregnancy?

For teens in some communities, "nothing is going to change until it becomes not cool to be pregnant."

Published August 22, 2006 10:57PM (EDT)

OK, so all we have to do to keep teens from getting pregnant is educate them about birth control and show them the bleak future they face as young parents. Right? If only. An article I just came across from Sunday's Baltimore Sun reminds us smarty-pants liberals that we have a lot to learn -- that when it comes to preventing unwanted pregnancy, our Just Say No to Abstinence Only slogans don't say enough.

First, because not all teen pregnancy is unwanted. The Sun article profiles Maryland's Washington County, which has the highest birthrate for white teens in the state and ranks fourth in the state for all births to girls ages 15-19. While the adolescent birthrate has declined in Maryland and the U.S., in Washington County, the numbers seem to be rising. Why? Because high school pregnancy there carries next to no stigma.

"Nothing is going to change until it becomes not cool to be pregnant," notes a school district administrator. "Right now, we have kids walking around high school with sonogram pictures taped to their notebooks." Damn. Remember when it was horses and Lorenzo Lamas?

There's reinforcement all around, not just from kids' peers. Many Washington County parents of pregnant or parenting students were themselves teens when they gave birth. The local papers print glowing portraits of four-generation families. Programs have emerged to help them earn their high school diplomas. (Some have complained that these make it "too easy" to be a high school mom. Nice.) Therein, you've got a feedback loop: The more teens get pregnant, and manage to deal, the more teen parenting seems like a feasible future.

Seems like. Dropout and jobless rates remain high (along with rates of sexually transmitted diseases). Some fathers stay involved, some don't. The county health officer points out that teen mothers are more likely to have underweight babies, unstable relationships, and alcohol or drug problems. "Chances are better they'll wind up in poverty than in college," says the Sun. Thing is, that's seen as the norm, not something that abstinence, or birth control, can prevent. As the Sun puts it, young women in communities with high birthrates see "no reason to put off the joy of having a baby." That's "no reason to put off the joy," not "no more appealing alternative." Which is a lot for your average sex-ed program to take on.

Speaking of which, the Board of Education, which apparently meets regularly at the local Denial Diner, has resisted expanding the sex-ed curriculum. Adds the Sun: "The Republican county commissioners only reluctantly agreed to spend more money this year on the anti-pregnancy campaign. One grumbled: 'It's the responsibility of parents.'" (We see how well that's going.)

While county schools promote abstinence as the best choice, students do learn about various birth control methods -- though it's not clear in what depth, or if they're told, "These are condoms. They don't work." In any regard, there's a big gap between knowing how to put a condom on a banana and understanding, in the context of your own community, the true consequences of not using one. (Not to mention the potential consequences of being seen buying one. "In a small community like this, you're not going to walk up to a drug store and buy condoms if you think your friend's mother is going to be behind the counter," said Karen Christof, director of the local Family Center.)

For similar reasons (at least in part), abortions are also not cool. While Washington is among the rare 13 percent of U.S. counties that actually have an abortion clinic, young women tell counselors they'd be afraid to be seen going in. According to the clinic administrator, fewer teens use the clinic today than they did 20 years ago. Those who do? "Girls who already have had one or two babies," she says.

Of course, teens do realize -- especially once they have them -- that babies aren't just cool accessories. "I have a lot going for me, and I have her," says one girl named Kellie of her baby. "It's hard. It's not that I regret having her. But when you're 17 years old, you should be out with your friends." Some nights, the Sun reports, Kellie dreams of being in high school, "just like it used to be," running to catch up with her buddies. "And then she wakes up."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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