NEW ORLEANS — Three days of discussion had focused on teen pregnancy prevention--indeed, this was the theme for Planned Parenthood's annual meeting. But statistics and horror stories aside (such as that of an 8-year-old who gave birth this year in Los Angeles), a consensus seemed to be evolving that it's time to move beyond debate over abortion and morality, time to start building coalitions to address underlying problems such as poverty and school dropouts.
"Forty-five thousand teens are going to get pregnant this year in Los Angeles," Dr. J. Hugh Anwyl, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, said in an interview, "a horrendous figure to even try to contemplate." And, he added, while the numbers may be starting to level off among older teens, they are increasing among those under 15.
There is as yet little cause for optimism in the statistics. But, Anywl said, "For me, the encouraging sign is we're beginning to move beyond the whole business of focusing on teen pregnancy as though by some magic you can deal with one aspect of their lives and think you've got it."
'First Line of Defense'
Anne Saunier, who was elected chairperson of the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America at the meeting concluding here Sunday, concurred: "I don't think we've ever believed that access to contraceptive services and to abortion would solve the teen-age pregnancy problem. But that's been our first line of defense. I think that line of defense is pretty well assured."
Now, Saunier said in an interview, it is essential to "look at the root causes of why teen-age pregnancy is such a phenomenon in this country, as compared to other industrialized countries, and try to attack some of those root causes."
Among root causes, she mentioned the "enormous mixed messages" society gives teens about sexuality and "the problem parents have dealing with issues related to teen-age sexuality. . . . Parents don't want their teens to be sexually active and, since they don't want it, they find it very difficult to talk with them about birth control. That confusion and ambivalence is contributing directly to teen-age pregnancy."
She is not advocating a radical change of direction for the organization and its 187 affiliates nationwide, Saunier said. Rather, she sees it as "an extension. The right to control one's own fertility is a basic human right. It's just that the problem of teen-age pregnancy is more intractable than we had hoped."
Joyce Ladner, a professor of sociology at Howard University's School of Social Work who has been involved in research on teen pregnancy for almost two decades, said in an address here that it is time to "rethink" solutions, to begin to treat teen pregnancy as part and parcel of a whole set of problems including juvenile delinquency, teen homicides, drug and alcohol abuse and sexual abuse of children.
Victims of Upward Mobility
As a society, Ladner said, "We've become the victims of our upward mobility," with families headed by single parents and families with mothers in the work force (54% of all white women, 47% of all black women). Today, for the first time, she said, "Children are the primary caretakers for (their) infants and children," where in earlier times their babies would have been raised by grandparents nearby or members of the extended family.
Ladner said she has seen quite enough of "black girls paraded across the (TV) screen" in documentaries examining the teen pregnancy problem. "Teen pregnancy is not a black problem. It is not a white problem," although proportionately more black girls become pregnant. The problem, she said, is "more closely entwined with poverty than with any other factor"--and blacks are less likely to either have abortions or place their babies for adoption. (Since 1960, Ladner said, teen pregnancy among whites is up 100%, among blacks, up 10%.)
Birth control alone is not the answer, she emphasized: "We need to listen to the kids," to build coalitions "with community groups who disagree with us on every other issue except that our kids are our greatest asset. We've got to deal with changing values."
For starters, Ladner said, "We should have mandatory family life education starting in kindergarten."
Legal issues, funding issues and media issues were also explored during the conference. At a session on "TV and Teen Sex: How to Change Network Policies," Marcy Kelly of the Los Angeles office of the Carnegie Corporation-funded Center for Population Options, a nonprofit organization that works to promote sexuality responsibility in the media, offered good news and bad.