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Jewish World Review / July 23, 1998 / 29 Tamuz, 5758

Clarence Page

Clarence Page Teen pregnancy has declined --- but it's not enough

WASHINGTON - Somebody offered a bright idea to leaders of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy: Why not enlist some popular sports figures to help sell the cause to teen-agers?

After all, young people buy sneakers, cereal and just about everything that athletes endorse. Maybe they also would buy the idea that they should avoid having children outside of wedlock.

No caption necessary.
Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings Institution fellow who also is president of the national campaign, agreed and pursued the idea.

But when she met with a prominent sports agent, he was less than enthusiastic about the idea, Sawhill recalls. After a bit of thought, he suggested diplomatically that professional athletes "might not make the best role models" for avoiding out-of-wedlock conceptions, she recalled.

In a telephone interview, Sawhill told me she was surprised by the agent's remarks, at the time. But they came back to mind when I mentioned to her a special report in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated.

It's the issue with the headline that reads "Where's Daddy?" over a photo of cute little Khalid Minor, son of Celtics guard Greg Minor, holding a basketball.

Although there have been no studies on athletes and their out-of-wedlock kids, the 10-page report recounts shocking anecdotes about some star athletes and quotes several experts who say the numbers are staggering.

One anonymous source identified only as one of the league's top agents estimates "there might be more kids out of wedlock than there are players in the NBA." He also is quoted as saying he spends more time dealing with paternity claims than he does negotiating contracts.

If the Sports Illustrated report is to be believed, it sounds like today's teens have more to teach today's sports stars than vice versa about unwanted pregnancy.

The same week the magazine hit newsstands, new federal health statistics revealed a continuing decline in teen-age births nationwide since 1990.

The sharpest declines were among black teens, who have fallen below the rate for Hispanics of all races, after years of having the highest recorded teen birth rate. Although black teens still have almost twice the rate of whites, their birth rate declined 21 percent from 1991 to 1996, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

As with all success stories, this one has an ample supply of partisans ready to take credit. Social conservatives credit a rise in the popularity of abstinence. Social liberals claim a rise in the rate of voluntary contraception.

But the best estimates of teen sexual activity indicate some of both is happening. Sawhill, whose group is a private nonpartisan initiative in Washington, cites studies that show a recent decline in sexual activity by 15- to 19-year-olds, but it's not as steep as the decline in pregnancies. At the same time, use of condoms and other contraceptives soared, right along with rising concern about AIDS.

Susan Tew, a spokesperson for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based research and education group that emphasizes contraception, cites a "constellation of causes," including a surprising popularity among teen girls for long-term contraceptives like DepoProvera and Norplant.

"Teen girls aged 15- to 17-years-old show the highest numbers for use of DepoProvera," she said, "even though it was originally thought to be a drug that older women would use the most."

Tew also cited the improved economy as encouraging more teens to think about careers and less about sex.

But, while the rate is coming down, it's much too soon to celebrate. Even with the latest count, this country still has the highest teen pregnancy rate, by far, of any industrialized nation - twice as high as the next largest industrialized country, Great Britain, Sawhill says.

Also, Sawhill asks you to consider this: 40 percent of all girls in the United States will get pregnant before their 21st birthday. About half of the babies will be carried to term; the rest will be aborted or miscarried. What is a parent to do? The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy advises that the most important thing we parents can do is to talk to our kids.

"Parents believe their voices don't matter, that they have lost their children to the popular culture and to peer pressure," Sawhill said. "That's simply not true. Our research shows parents do matter. Their influence still is very important."

It is not "the 45-minute talk about the birds and bees" that makes the difference, Sawhill says, but the ongoing relationship that makes teen-agers feel comfortably close enough to talk candidly with parents about their parents' values.

Teen births appear to be declining without the help of sports stars, but not without the help of parents. Parents do matter. Even teen-agers seem to think so.


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©1998, Tribune Media Services.