The young woman had seemed agitated during my speech on adolescent pregnancy, and during the question- and-answer session that followed, she let me know why.
Just what exactly did I mean, she demanded, when I suggested that at least a part of the problem of teen-age pregnancy is our failure to inculcate moral values, including the notion that premarital sex is wrong? Didn't I understand that morality is a matter of individual conscience and that the rest of us--most definitely including public school teachers--have no business imposing our private values on other people's children? Wouldn't it make more sense to talk to young people about the purely practical implications of adolescent pregnancy?
That was some months ago. More recently, I wrote a column in which I objected to the federal proposal to require federally funded family planning agencies to notify parents when they supply minor children with contraceptive devices. The responses included this one:
"Your article was a distinct disappointment. It does put a lot of responsibility on parents to try to relate to their kids and help them deal with the problems of growing up. Parents, I believe, have a moral as well as a legal responsibility to their minor children. Not knowing how to handle the problem is no excuse. Parents can help each other, and mental health and other professionals can be called in. If a young woman (or young man involved) ever needed some 'parenting'--i.e., support, advice, protection, teaching, empathy, it's now. If parents continue to enlarge the areas of neglect of their children through giving prior attention to their own needs, we are headed for more social disorganization, angst, narcissism and general uncivility than we now have."
It may be a cheap rhetorical trick to set up two extremes in order to appear reasonable by coming down in the middle, but it occurs to me that the two responses do serve nicely to bracket the discussion of this peculiarly vexing problem.
Somewhere, between the laissez- faire approach of leaving it to each child to develop his or her own code of pragmatism and the notion that parents must bear the responsibility for shaping and controlling their children's moral behavior, lies the real world.
As a general matter, parents who make the effort to inculcate solid moral views in their children and, in addition, work to open lines of communication with them, don't need to worry about the recently promulgated "snitch" rule. Their children are likely to see the value, both pragmatic and moral, of postponing sexual activity, and are also likely to feel relatively free to talk to their parents about the the temptations that confront them. These children are not at the heart of the problem of teen-age pregnancy.
On the other hand, youngsters who have not had moral training, even by parental example, and who see pregnancy as not such a big deal because they see themselves as having not much of a future in any case, are ripe for trouble.
The problem of teen-age pregnancy is so immense--nearly a tenth of all babies born today, and a disastrous 55 percent of black babies, are born out of wedlock--that we have to move on every front: appeals to basic morality and the youngsters' sense of their own self-worth to postpone sexual activity; practical advice for the sexually active so that they can avoid pregnancy, and, finally, doing what we can for the children born despite our best efforts.
I'm bothered by government regulations that are designed to increase parental responsibility but are more likely to increase teen-age pregnancy. But I'm bothered no less by the abandonment of morality to the tender mercies of the political right.
When we start to view moral training as an unwarranted intrusion into the lives of our children, we are in deep and serious trouble.