At the hearings last week on funding for his revised "teen-age chastity" bill, now the "Adolescent Family Life" bill, the conservative Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) read off a list of a number of groups that have endorsed the measure. The first group mentioned by Denton, who is among the group of senators elected in 1980 with the aid of the religious and political right, was the National Urban League.
The Urban League, one of the foremost civil rights organizations in the nation and an unrelenting critic of the Reagan administration, being proudly flaunted by Denton, standard-bearer of the New Right?
"We understand that every idea of the New Right is not necessarily evil, nor is every idea that our liberal friends can produce necessarily productive," said Maudine R. Cooper, vice president of the League. "We have to look at things in terms of impact. The bill as it is presently drafted is far different . . . . I keep going back to the fact of escalating teen pregnancy . . . . That is the issue."
As a matter of fact, the bill has also won the endorsement of liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a bill cosponsor. Kennedy sponsored a precursor bill three years ago to provide services for pregnant teen-agers ranging from nutritional counseling to prenatal care. In a Republican, no-spend Senate, Kennedy needed bipartisan support to have his bill refunded. So when Denton introduced his original bill calling for spending $30 million to promote chastity among teen-agers, and the measure drew the ire of women's groups and liberal organizations, Kennedy saw a way to help maintain his programs and to help Denton as well by making the conservative senator's ideas more respectable.
Denton's portion of the bill is a pilot D prevention program. A spokesman for the senator described its purpose as to encourage teens "to either refrain from sexual relations or to delay the onset of sexual relations." Denton's idea is to set up trial programs and if the ideas work to have groups in the states use their block grant money to perpetuate them.
Groups such as Planned Parenthood are highly suspicious of Denton's measure, partly because he is so critical of sex education. Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood, says that while nobody is against chastity, the pressing need is for more sex education even earlier than the teen years. "In the real world the reasons are myriad why some teens become sexually active earlier, and the complexities that must be considered are their life circumstances, peer pressure, their future options as adults," she said.
But the Congress is cutting money for family planning, a strategy that has demonstrated its value in averting pregnancies among teen-agers, even as the administration funds Denton's new effort to counsel morality.
As Wattleton puts it, "This bill is simply not a useful way to spend the resources we have for this problem."
Beyond the merits of the bill, it is pretty hypocritical for Denton to be tossing around with pride the endorsement of a black civil rights group. His voting record reveals him to be against everything the Urban League stands for.
National Urban League President John E. Jacob has said that "for black Americans, 1981 was a year of economic depression, savage cuts in survival programs for the poor. We must be very clear about what happened: The rich got tax cuts, the Pentagon got a blank check, but poor people lost jobs, training opportunities, food assistance, health care, and much else."
Denton was one of the ones leading the slashing.
"What's puzzling to me," says Theodora Ooms of the Institute for Educational Leadership, "is that on all these issues he Denton is saying federal government shouldn't do anything for poor people, but here on this issue he's contradicted himself, saying federal government should have a role."
I know the Urban League cares about the problem of teen pregnancy, and as with Kennedy, it is probably a case of opting for half a loaf rather than none. But it sends a funny signal to an already nervous black America. By any measure Jeremiah Denton is a very odd bedfellow, and one with whom I would counsel caution--at the very least.