Vice-presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin's announcement that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant has sparked a new conversation about teenage pregnancy in America. This renewed focus on teen pregnancy is an opportunity for us all to commit to giving young people our support rather than stigmatizing and judging them. Bristol Palin's pregnancy serves as a reminder that more babies are born to White, non-Hispanic teens than to Black, non-Hispanic teens. Perhaps this realization will spur more people to support policies that help teens stay in school and get the supports they need since there is often a double standard when pregnant teens are poor or minority. The fact is that no amount of finger pointing or name calling does teenage parents of any color -- or their children -- any good. What can help are solutions that steer all teenagers toward positive life choices so they avoid becoming pregnant in the first place.
In 1986, the Children's Defense Fund launched its Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign, a year when 472,081 babies were born to teens, including more than 10,000 to girls younger than 15. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that between 1991 and 2005, the U.S. teen birth rate decreased by 34 percent, although preliminary data for 2006 suggest a slight increase in this rate. In 2005, there were 11 percent fewer births to teens than in 1986, including 34 percent fewer to girls younger than 15.
But the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy also points out that the United States still has the highest teen birth rate among fully industrialized nations. An estimated three in 10 American girls become pregnant before age 20. Children born to teenage parents are at greater risk for being born into poverty, to unmarried parents, to mothers who received late or no prenatal care, and many other conditions that can keep them from getting the best possible start in life. Most Americans -- liberals and conservatives -- should be able to agree that it's in everyone's best interest when teenagers wait before taking one of the biggest leaps in their lives and become parents. And whether Americans are pro-choice or against abortion, I'm sure all agree that it's best when teenagers and young people don't experience early, unplanned pregnancies that might lead them to consider an abortion or have a child when they are too young.
We have an opportunity to take advantage of a renewed national conversation and once again emphasize pregnancy prevention for today's teenagers -- both boys and girls. Adults, especially parents, do matter when it comes to encouraging children to dream and plan for their futures. It's never too early for young people to start setting goals about college or careers -- or for adults to explain to them in no uncertain terms how pregnancy and early parenthood will drastically affect their plans. The best contraceptives are hope and a sense of a positive future. A lack of education and poverty are the largest predictors of teen pregnancy.
We must all support after-school, youth employment, mentoring and other kinds of programs that give teenagers positive, productive ways to fill their time and provide them with strong role models. We need to guide all teens in their quest to become mature, contributing adults. Once they have accomplished that, then they can consider taking on the role of shaping another life, when they are able to fully appreciate the joys and responsibilities of parenthood.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
Mrs. Edelman has released her new book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, a call to action for all Americans to address the urgent needs of the country's youth. The book is a series of letters to a variety of audiences--educators, faith leaders, youth, mothers, elected officials and concerned citizens nationwide that reflect on the social and economic progress as well as the setbacks since Dr. King's death 40 years ago. Mrs. Edelman challenges each audience to step up and take action at this pivotal moment to ensure a level playing field for the next generation. Learn more.