16 and Pregnant: Why Don’t American Girls Stop Getting Knocked Up?

Teen pregnancies are down—but only compared to our own abysmal record

The names are like sad jewels on a necklace that keeps getting longer — the names of my kids’ friends who are having babies. Each time another one gets added, I want to kick a wall. What are these kids thinking? What is the government thinking, relying on abstinence education to stem the tide of children having children? What’s become of our society, when 40 percent of all births are out of wedlock — 72 percent for black moms? Having and raising kids has been by far the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted — and I had a good job, a loving husband, and plenty of family support.

Still, the necklace keeps getting longer. There’s no discernible pattern to the names; they’re good students and bad, athletes and band geeks, from broken homes and fine homes, seemingly as sensible as any other kids. If I were to guess what they have in common, it’s an all-too-familiar belief that “It won’t happen to me,” that magical denial of biology. You get away with it once, and instead of realizing this makes it more likely you won’t get away with it again, you figure, hey, there, you see?

[SIGNUP]I was slightly cheered by a report in December that the teen birth rate had fallen to an all-time low of 39 per 1,000 girls ages 15 through 19. Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwed Pregnancy, laid the decline at the feet of the recession, which is absolute hokum; kids who don’t think they’re going to get pregnant aren’t going to worry that they’re not going to land jobs. A more likely cause is the MTV reality show Sixteen and Pregnant, which follows teen moms through the grim, bewildering cycle of their days, complete with unsupportive partners, fed-up parents, and unremitting 24/7 responsibility. Aubrey, Megan, Kayla and the rest of these teen moms are public-service announcements promoting chastity—or condoms, at least.

Meantime, a story in yesterday’s Inquirer put that all-time-low birth rate in perspective. Those 39 American teen births per 1,000 girls are still staggering compared to the rates in Canada (13), Italy (5), Japan (5), the Netherlands (4) and France (7). Experts cite “more realistic approaches to birth control” in those countries, meaning it costs less and is easier for teens to get. They also say European teens aren’t having less sex than American kids; they’re just as likely having more. But in Sweden, 80 percent of sexually active teen girls use birth control; in England and France, it’s 88 percent. In the U.S.? Just 61 percent. Maybe the new contest for a Philly condom wrapper will help. (There’s a $250 prize!) But what would really help would be a change in our cultural expectations for teens. In Sweden, it’s assumed teen moms have mental problems or are addicted to drugs, because they’re so outside the norm. Here, we don’t dare be so judgmental; it wouldn’t be PC.

America used to keep teen pregnancy under control with the heavy hand of shame, which led to its own sorts of misery. I’m not suggesting a return to those days; as my daughter says, “Shame never did anybody any good.” But we’ve got to do better at convincing teen girls — and guys — that the brief satisfaction of sex isn’t worth an unplanned pregnancy that brings their dreams to an end. Keep those public-service announcements coming, Kayla and Aubrey et al.