July 2, 2008 | Commentary on Sex Education and Abstinence

Planned Teen Parenthood

Most experts concerned about teen pregnancy assume that teenage girls don't want to get pregnant. So, they assume, the logical way to reduce teen pregnancy is to teach the girls how to avoid getting pregnant, whether through abstinence or contraception. Almost all campaigns to reduce teen pregnancy are based on this premise. Unfortunately, that assumption and the policies based on it are often wrong, as recent news reminds us.
A high school in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a harbor town 30 miles outside Boston, saw a sudden spike in the number of pregnant students -- 18 by the end of this school year, more than four times the previous year's total. Time initially reported that the spike was due to a group of female students, most under the age of 16, who made a "pact" to get pregnant:
School officials started looking into the matter as early as October after an unusual number of girls began filing into the school clinic to find out if they were pregnant. By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, "some girls seemed more upset when they weren't pregnant than when they were," [Principal Joseph] Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.

Officials had reason to be frustrated. Gloucester high had a school-based health clinic; they had contracted with the local Title X family planning clinic to provide comprehensive sex-ed classes; they even offered an elaborate program of free day care in a converted classroom to help mothers stay in school. They did everything by the book, and the spike in pregnancies occurred anyway. Why?

Former classmate Amanda Ireland may have the answer. According to Time: "Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. 'They're so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally,' Ireland says."

This explanation dovetails with the research of sociologists Kathryn Eden and Maria Kefalas in their book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. Eden and Kefalas spent five years living in the same neighborhoods with poor unwed mothers. Their conclusions are often counterintuitive. For example:

While the poor women we interviewed saw marriage as a luxury, something they aspired to but feared they might never achieve, they judged children to be a necessity, an absolutely essential part of a young woman's life, the chief source of identity and meaning.

Local news reports have questioned Time's characterization of the situation, but nobody is denying that these girls knew how to avoid getting pregnant and instead chose otherwise. To young girls who see teenage pregnancy as something desirable, making a pact like this is not unimaginable.

Local health officials in Gloucester, however, seem to have been completely oblivious to the aspirations of these girls. Gloucester High offers pregnancy tests and other reproductive health services through its school-based health clinic. At least some of the girls clearly were happy to be pregnant -- slapping high fives when they heard the news -- which suggests they weren't trying to avoid conception. Yet the nurse who runs the clinic and the clinic's medical director reacted by calling for greater access to birth control, even if the parents of the girls didn't approve:

[B]y May, after nurse practitioner Kim Daly had administered some 150 pregnancy tests at Gloucester High's student clinic, she and the clinic's medical director, Dr. Brian Orr, a local pediatrician, began to advocate prescribing contraceptives regardless of parental consent, a practice at about 15 public high schools in Massachusetts [emphasis added].

Parents might be wondering how it could be legal for schools to offer contraceptives to minors without their parents' consent. And how could this be the practice at over one-quarter of the school-based health clinics in Massachusetts? Because federal and state laws usually require that publicly funded health clinics offer birth control and other reproductive health services to minors who request them, without parental consent or notice.

As I show in a recent Heritage Foundation paper, prescribing contraceptives without parental notification or consent is common practice at school health clinics. In fact, federal law requires it when the minor is eligible for Medicaid, or when the clinic receives Title X funds. The policy is based on the belief that requiring parental consent before a girl can get birth control won't reduce teen sexual activity at all. Because the parents may say no and because teens will, presumably, "do it anyway," requiring consent only makes it more likely that the girl would get pregnant or contract a disease.

This view is unproven, but it has been the foundation of U.S. family planning policy since 1972. And the push to expand school-based health clinics is part of a movement to increase the availability of birth control to minors without their parents' knowledge or consent.

It's difficult to imagine a more counterproductive approach. These girls need more parental involvement, not less. These young girls know how to have babies, so further sex ed isn't needed. They want to have babies, so contraception is beside the point. The problem is that they think that they are ready to have babies, and they aren't.

That's where the parents should be stepping in, helping the girls to realize that they aren't ready to be mothers. Social-science data clearly shows that teenage motherhood is frequently a ticket to a life of poverty.

Studies show that teens are less likely to have sex if they think their parents disapprove. But parents are often kept in the dark, thanks to misbegotten health care policies which view them as a threat to their daughter's best interests.

Our nation's "experts" are spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with teenage girls who want to be mothers. Indeed, laws designed to make contraceptives available to teenagers often make the problem worse. Lawmakers should change these policies -- and give parents the opportunity to teach their children well.

Daniel Patrick Moloney is senior policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Daniel P Moloney, Ph.D. Senior Policy Analyst
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

First Appeared on National Review Online