NEW ORLEANS — The problem is epidemic--1.1 million pregnant teen-agers each year among a U.S. adolescent population of 29 million. Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton calls it "the single most important issue of the remaining years of the 20th Century."
And the answer, she and other Planned Parenthood leaders are convinced, lies not in preaching the return to a morality of an earlier time but in making certain teens have ready access to both sex education and contraceptives.
"We are not going to be an organization promoting celibacy or chastity," Wattleton said when the question was posed. "Our concern is not to convey 'shoulds' and 'should nots,' but to help young people make responsible decisions about their sexual relationships."
To this end, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, convening here through the weekend, has unveiled plans for a comprehensive national advertising campaign, a $1-million initial effort to begin in November. It is targeted at teens, their parents, at lawmakers who make decisions on mandatory school sex education and, not incidentally, at the three major television networks, all of which ban ads for contraceptives.
"We've got to be more concerned about preventing teen pregnancies than we are about stopping sexual relationships," said Wattleton, who is a master's-degree R.N. with certification as a nurse-midwife.
The reality, she said in an interview, is that in 1986 sex among teens is "a given. I don't think anyone with a rational mind is going to say that as of a given date there will be no more teen-age sexual activity."
Planned Parenthood's statistics seem to bear her out: 11 million of the nation's 29 million adolescents are sexually active, 5 million of these girls. By age 19, eight in 10 males and seven in 10 females will have had intercourse. Forty percent of teen-age girls become pregnant at least once before they turn 20.
(The District of Columbia leads the nation with the highest teen-pregnancy rate, followed by Baltimore, Newark, Detroit and New York.)
Dr. Louise B. Tyrer, an obstetrician and gynecologist who is PPFA's vice president for medical affairs, points a finger at parents who sidestep their responsibility as sex-education teachers: "There's no doubt people in this country are very hung up about sex."
She notes the irony that many adults who oppose sex education in the schools (a small minority, Planned Parenthood contends) also shirk the task at home. "I think," Tyrer said, "they believe (youngsters) are supposed to be locked up sexually until they're married, and then this magic world is supposed to open up. It just doesn't happen that way."
Planned Parenthood's ads, to appear first as full pages in major newspapers and magazines (among these, Seventeen and, for fathers of teen-agers, magazines with strong male readership) don't pull any punches. In one, a girl is saying, "He said if I didn't do it, he wouldn't love me anymore." In another, a teen-age boy says, "Then I got this awful phone call."
Another ad, an appeal to parents to communicate with their children about sex, leads off with a distraught-appearing father saying, "When I found my daughter's birth control pills, I hit the ceiling." (The ad campaign dovetails with another new Planned Parenthood campaign, POWER, an acronym for Parents Organized to Win Educational Rights, which hopes to mobilize support for sex education both in the home and in school.)
Several of the ads deal with what Planned Parenthood views as a double standard upheld by the major television networks, which present sexy programming while banning contraceptive commercials. One of these ads asks, "They did it 9,000 times on television last year. How come nobody got pregnant?"
The boys and girls in the Planned Parenthood ads are black, Latino and Caucasian. Black teens have twice as many pregnancies as white teens, Wattleton noted, "and the impact is much greater" in the black community. She points, though, to an increasing pregnancy rate among Latina and white girls, even as the rate for black girls is declining slightly.
More data: Most sexually active teens wait at least nine months after first intercourse before seeking contraceptive advice. Half of teen pregnancies occur within six months of initiating sexual activity. Only one-third of teens use birth control regularly; one-third never use it.
Why? "Teens are very ignorant about birth control," Wattleton said. "They are not taught, quite simply. Misinformation and lack of information is really pervasive." She added, "We do tend to be prudish on these issues."
Idealistic View of Teens