Just over a year ago, Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. named a blue-ribbon panel to figure out ways of stemming the District's nation-leading epidemic of teen- age pregnancy. After scores of meetings, eight public hearings, four town meetings and a spate of workshops, the 90-member panel has delivered its conclusions, which may fairly be summarized as: We don't know either.
This is no putdown of the panel's serious-minded report but a straightforward acknowledgment that the problem of adolescent pregnancy is so deeply rooted, so enmeshed in such other problems as poverty, low self-esteem, hopelessness, family deterioration and changing sexual mores that very little can be done quickly to reverse it.
The report makes a number of proposals, among them public school family-life education courses, funding of community-based pregnancy-prevention programs and in-school clinics to deal with a wide range of health problems, including sex-related ones.
But the panel believes that any workable approach must accept the fact that pregnancy is but one manifestation of a series of interrelated problems that demand community-wide involvement. "I think the immediate impact of the report is that a lot of people can see the various roles they can play," said Joyce Ladner of Howard University, who chaired the panel. "We are going to have to be very patient. We just ended phase one. Now the work starts."
The problem is that it isn't clear just what the work is. The genius of the panel's report -- that we are talking about infinitely more than the mechanics of pregnancy prevention -- is also its chief frustration.
"Becoming a teen-age parent," the report says, "is coupled with other problems which afflict high-risk youth, such as substance abuse, child neglect and abuse, school dropout, unemployment and crime. Therefore, teen pregnancy cannot continue to be viewed and treated in isolation."
But by acknowledging that "no single strategy could be effective," and by admitting that even a broad-based approach may take several years to produce measurable results, the report tends to reinforce a sense of futility, the sense that there may not be much point in doing anything unless you can do everything.
And "everything" costs more money than may be available: for effective information programs, for school-based comprehensive clinics, for District Building coordination, for job-training programs, self-esteem programs, early childhood development programs -- for everything.
Meanwhile, the problem keeps getting bigger. Every year sees the birth of nearly 2,000 new babies -- a fifth of all D.C. births -- to teen-age mothers. And, thanks in part to the work of another Barry-appointed panel, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Infant Mor- tality -- more of them are surviving. Adolescent pregnancy, in short, constitutes a full-scale crisis, a crisis rendered worse, according to the report, by the fact that "the black family is unable to cope with (it) because of the demise of the black extended family . . . and the erosion of stable black communities."
It's hard to be upbeat about the morass of problems of which teen-age pregnancy is both an outcome and a contributing cause. And yet, to succumb to Big Picture Paralysis is to guarantee that it will get worse.
It isn't merely a question of starting somewhere. It's a matter of starting everywhere. All of us have to do everything, starting yesterday.