Births among unwed teen-agers are increasing. Adults are frightened, furious, confused and depressed about it and are certain it heralds a breakdown of the social order, a descent into moral anarchy.
Last week I visited a teen-age pregnancy center in Buffalo. One teen-ager there said to me: "I'm giving up my baby for adoption. It's going to be tough to give her up. But I can't give my baby what she will need and I want the best for her." Is this the cry of an immoral girl without values? The director of the center, in his work for 30 years, said to me: "I've never met a pregnant girl who hated children."
The pregnant adolescents I have met are not miserable women looking for a coat hanger for an abortion, hating their families and their unborn children, suicidal about being pregnant, downcast about all relationships with people. They are not self-centered teen-agers interested only in shooting dope and drinking, or having babies just to go on welfare, as they are so often described.
These young mothers are thirsting for someone to love and to love them, a human context, a human place, so that, regardless of the circumstances of birth, wedlock, race or economics, the newborn infant will possess an inheritance--a family.
In our well-intentioned concern for young mothers and their babies, we are not focusing on the real issue. It is not a biological and social disaster or an "epidemic" that threatens society. It is a human problem that involves all of us--for all of our teen-agers need help in understanding their sexuality and the moral values that go into creating a family.
Research indicates that when parents speak frankly about sex to their teen-agers, when they share with them moral values, the chance of their children becoming pregnant in adolescence is greatly reduced.
Fortunately, there are programs to help teen-agers who do become pregnant at what we can all agree is too early an age. In more than 2,000 urban and rural areas, "communities of caring" have been established, founded on the premise that the family is the prime ethical value of our society and that teen-agers are moral individuals with duties of love and responsibility to themselves, their families and society.
Each year these centers, supported by federal and state funds as well as by voluntary agencies, help more than 300,000 young parents and their families. The centers provide more than clinical services. All aspects of pregnancy and parenting are set in the larger framework of moral values. The programs are even cost-effective. When compared with similar groups of young parents who have received only clinical services during pregnancy, the savings in health and welfare costs for each mother and child are almost twice what the programs cost. Most important, these programs reach out to involve the adolescents' mothers and fathers in their children's pregnancies and in the lives of their grandchildren. There is sympathetic listening and talking with the young women and, whenever possible, with the young men.
Teen-age pregnancy is not easy, nor do we wish to encourage it. But instead of considering adolescent parents incorrigible or lost, we should be trying to help them achieve their hopes--a stable family life and a marriage with two parents for a child. To quote sermons or wring our hands or fail to realize we are the models so many teen-agers try to imitate is to dismiss and downgrade the young.