THE BLOG

New York Is Right: Tell the Truth on Teen Pregnancy

03/13/2013 11:19 am ET | Updated May 13, 2013

The City of New York is running an advertising campaign that urges teenage girls not to get pregnant. It is right to do so.

The campaign has drawn fire from Planned Parenthood and others, who say that it is intended to "blame and shame" and is therefore deeply flawed. In their view, it won't work with girls who are not yet parents and will only succeed in hurting and humiliating those who already are parents; they say that it would be far better to focus on social programs that provide acceptance and build trust.

In any case, according to Haydee Morales, a Planned Parenthood official quoted in the New York Times, the City administration has confused cause and effect. "It's not teen pregnancies that cause poverty," Ms. Morales said, "but poverty that causes teen pregnancy."

This is a difficult issue for anyone, but as a religious Jew, it seems to me that Morales has this wrong.

I believe that Judaism imposes on me two obligations. The first is to recognize the moral claims made on me and on the society in which I live by the afflicted, the vulnerable and those without power. Religious Jews -- and religious Christians as well -- have been insufficiently assertive in that regard. The Hebrew Bible, which is the foundation of our respective religious traditions, is a radical book, demanding a much greater measure of justice, righteousness and concern for the poor than we find today in America. Our governments, national and local, New York City included, need to do far more than they have been doing to assist the least fortunate in our midst.

At the same time, Judaism insists on personal morality, individual responsibility, and a straightforward moral language that makes it possible for us to assert basic moral truths. Even as we know that societal conditions can afflict the poor and the helpless, we also know that poverty does not exempt anyone from moral responsibility to those around them. We know that despair does not justify behaviors that subject our children to misery and suffering, especially when that suffering can be prevented.

Ours is a society that is tolerant of each other's lifestyles, and on balance I count that as a blessing. We also demonstrate a measure of libertarian openness, which I also applaud. Still, the City of New York is right to remind young women that children deserve strong families (and I used that term in a broad sense, to include non-traditional families), and that even in difficult circumstances, teenagers do not lose control of their fate.

Are the ads intended to shame teenagers with children and scare the most vulnerable girls? This is a legitimate question. Judaism views public humiliation not merely with disapproval but with horror, an offense against God as well as another human being. One is forbidden to shame one's neighbor in public (Bava Metzia 58b), and in most instances, building on the biblical verse "You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people" (Leviticus 19:16), to say hurtful things to others even when they are true.

Nonetheless, the Bible recognizes the need to rebuke improper behavior, as we see from Leviticus 19:17: "You shall rebuke, yes rebuke, your fellow, and not bear sin because of him (or her)." Rebukes are permitted when innocent people will suffer if nothing is said and when there is some reason to believe that one's words will change or help to change the behavior involved. Furthermore, almost all of the extensive Jewish ethical literature on this subject refers to hurtful comments made to specific individuals and not to a general campaign of public education.

The New York City campaign would appear to meet the necessary moral criteria. It does not set out to humiliate. If its message were "Don't be a tramp," as some of its critics have implied, it would be profoundly offensive and utterly unacceptable. But in fact, its message is: "These are the consequences of having a child as an unmarried teenager; before you do it, think of your child's future and your own." It provides objective information about the high economic cost of having a child and gives statistical data on how much higher the likelihood is that a child born in these circumstances will be poor; this is information that most teenagers are very unlikely to know.

It should be said that additional programs that would reach out directly to teenagers are welcome in every way, but it is hard to imagine any circumstance in which all -- or even most -- young women would be reached. An advertising campaign discouraging teen pregnancy, with an unambiguous but carefully presented message, is welcome for the same reason that public education campaigns discouraging smoking and drug use are welcome; and such campaigns, of course, have long been accepted.

New York City is saying that if we are to have individual responsibility, we should also have institutions that teach individual responsibility. And we should teach in a way that is sensitive but clear. After all, when moral language breaks down, the values on which it rests collapse as well. And if this happens we are not meeting our responsibility to those who, young and prone to ethical lapses, may still need our guidance.