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Harvard's Fonda Jane

The Oscar-winning actress, activist and, now, advocate is greeted with enthusiasm. She speaks passionately about her work to reduce teen pregnancy.

March 17, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Ma. — The threat of an asteroid colliding with Earth had been temporarily averted. But at Harvard over the weekend, a new crisis was looming. "What are we going to do about this receiving line?" asked Sue Rapple, an official at the university's School of Public Health.

Her concerns were well-founded. The procession snaked across the entire third floor of the Charles Hotel here, barricading the ballroom and, if you want to talk about crises, blocking the bar. Snails on sedatives would surely have moved faster than this particular queue, which was gridlocked as each guest greeted the visiting dignitary.

Was this the newest Nobel Prize winner? The discoverer or some heretofore unknown civilization? The decoder (at last) of the Etruscan language?

No, this was Jane Fonda. Or--because this is Boston--as she was at one point introduced: Jane Fonder.

With her husband, Ted Turner, by her side, Fonda smiled and shook hands with every single one of several hundred guests who packed a dinner party Friday night launching the public health school's annual dean's weekend symposium. This year's theme was children's health, a subject Fonda feels--and, as it turns out, speaks--passionately about. Despite two Academy Awards and a lifetime of public appearances, she admitted to being nervous about keynoting this gathering of intellectual heavyweights. When she got the letter inviting her to Harvard, she remembered, "I just ran all over the office, screaming, 'Look where I've been invited to speak!' "

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But before she could discuss teen pregnancy prevention--Fonda's philanthropic focus ever since she married Turner and moved to Georgia--she, too, was trapped in the receiving-line-that-would-not-end. At 60, she was relentlessly gracious--and equally glamorous. She wore a taupe trouser suit, a giant emerald engagement ring and long, fluffy hair that looked like it had been colored by another Turner, the Impressionist painter J.M.W.

Actress, antiwar activist and now advocate: Fonda has had at least as many reincarnations as she has had husbands. In her Turner period, she has settled into a role as career volunteer. She is a trustee and vice president of the Turner Foundation, her husband's private grant-making organization, and is widely thought to have been a driving force behind Turner's billion-dollar donation to the United Nations. Former Democratic Sen. Tim Wirth, of Colorado, now runs Turner's U.N. Foundation, and, as Fonda reminded her audience, she and Wirth first met in the 1960s when he was a Harvard undergraduate and she was the Hasty Pudding Club's Woman of the Year.

It was her work as chair and founder of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, or G-Capp, that Fonda was most eager to discuss. For almost 10 years, she has rolled up her sleeves and plunged into rural and urban communities across her adopted state to try to reduce teen pregnancy. She has concluded, first of all, that "poverty is the issue, not race as some people sometimes believe. The fact is that poverty causes teen pregnancy."

Fonda also has found that "if there are 10 things we think will prevent adolescent pregnancy, eight of them are above the waist." Her group, she said, never mentions abortion, contending that "abortion should be safe, and legal and rare--and we are about making it rare."

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Thanks to "money from Ted," Fonda's organization has poured $10 million into after-school programs for Georgia teenagers. "Borrowing from the developing world," G-Capp has also launched micro-enterprise programs to get poor teenagers involved in starting actual businesses, such as a T-shirt company. G-Capp runs a mentoring arm that, among other things, encourages adults to talk to young people about sex. Studying the link between early-childhood sexual abuse and subsequent teen pregnancy, the group has found that one in four teen mothers was raped as a child. G-Capp also is looking at the connection between failing in school and teen pregnancy.

Fonda spoke earnestly, and also urgently, as she outlined her group's strategies. From time to time, she donned horn-rimmed glasses, then removed them, then put them back again. All the while, her media-mogul husband watched attentively, nodding his head when Fonda made an especially strong point.

"Advocacy is an absolute," she said, and Turner nodded. "See in Georgia, it's really conservative. I mean, Ralph Reed [immediate past president of the Christian Coalition] moved to Atlanta. And so mobilizing the silent majority--I never thought I would live to hear myself say that--that turns out to be really important."

Fonda continued with G-Capp's below-the-waist agenda: teen-friendly clinics and a philosophy that says "abstinence is cool." Abruptly, as she completed a pitch for enlightened sexual education, she declared, "Well, that's about it." She paused, and the glasses came off again. "Yeah," said Fonda, "that's it. I'll end there." The crowd leaped to its feet.

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