THE NEWEST batch of government health statistics have ominous news to report: the rate of births to teenage girls, on the decline for 18 years, began climbing again in 1986, and the number of births to girls aged 15 to 17 jumped a startling 10 percent in the next two years. The number of teen pregnancies in this country peaked in 1972 and began to fall in 1973, the year the Supreme Court overturned laws outlawing abortion. Statistics of this sort are notoriously difficult to interpret, so it's not clear whether the jump in the teen birth rate has more to do with the widely documented decrease in access to abortion (especially in rural areas), or to the increased controversy surrounding it or to other factors such as the continuing increase in adolescent sexual activity. But there are hints. Significantly, the increase was biggest among white teenagers and among the youngest group -- both considered to be groups more likely to have resorted to abortion in the past. What most people -- regardless of their stance on abortion -- can agree on about these births to teenagers is that a lot of them result from pregnancies that should not have happened in the first place. By far the best way to avoid births to teenagers is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, and an important way to help do that is to teach these young women about birth control.
This administration does not seem to share the Reagan administration's extreme hostility to government promotion of birth control, which showed up in deep cuts in family planning programs and in the now-defunct "squeal rule," which was to require clinics to inform the parents of minors to whom they distributed birth control paraphernalia -- thus deterring many minors from seeking contraception at all. Present policies are more noncommittal. Funding levels are steady, but the main administrative emphasis has been on the "adolescent and family life" programs that urge teens to refrain from sex -- good advice, to be sure, but incomplete without a concomitant effort to provide information on protection. In 1988 HHS also created practical difficulties for family planning organizations by issuing new regulations that were aimed at further separating the abortion-providing parts of the organizations from those receiving federal money for contraceptive work. The regulations were challenged and are now before the Supreme Court.
Birth control can and ought to serve as that elusive middle ground on which abortion opponents and abortion rights advocates can agree: it reduces the number of pregnancies and the number of abortions alike. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, at a breakfast with reporters, said Thursday in response to the birthrate increase that "we do have a commitment to family planning," though "we do not believe abortion is family planning," andnoted that the two can be separated. The department's active follow-through on that commitment leaves something to be desired, so far, but these worrisome statistics should make contraceptive programs one of the administration's urgent priorities.