Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The 'Secret' Behind Lower Teen Pregnancy

By June Carbone

In the mid-1990s, I discovered what appears to be a closely held secret. The recent news of falling teen pregnancy rates convinced me that the information remains secret despite the fact that it is in plain view for anyone who wishes to inquire.

The secret is the determination of the African-American community to combat teen births, and the success that concerted community action has had in transforming child-bearing behavior.

I discovered the secret when I attended a conference on welfare reform at Columbia University. The conferees, whatever their racial backgrounds, were united in their denunciation of welfare reform as an assault on African-American motherhood. They were convinced that any questioning of the number, timing or circumstances of African-Americans births was an attack on the community itself.

I encountered a different perspective when I had dinner with an in-the-trenches law school classmate. She heads an organization that works closely with black churches and community leaders. She said that these leaders saw teen births as the single biggest challenge in the African-American community, and they were devoting their energy to meeting that challenge.

The good news is that they have had remarkable success. A decade of hard work by countless volunteers, pastors and community organizers has moved the statistical picture in a big way. Teen birth rates are now near historic lows. The overall rate fell 26 percent in the 1990s, according to U.S. Census figures. The far more dramatic figure for African-Americans was 37 percent.

Yet, while the mainstream press routinely heralds these statistics, the community efforts to change attitudes toward teen childbearing are rarely part of the story.

Abortion statistics released earlier this month by the Alan Guttmacher Institute were treated as something of mystery by the media and illustrated the lack of understanding. The institute confirmed the drop in births from 1994-2000, but it showed that while abortions also fell generally, they rose sharply for poor women.

News stories quoted conservative activists who credited the overall figures to their emphasis on abstinence. Yet, the commentary on the rates for poorer women focused only on speculation from experts far removed from the scene about declining access to contraception in low-income communities. The speculation would be easy to excuse if it didn't contradict the last set of expert explanations.

When the first news stories documented falling teen birth rates, they wondered about the reasons for the decline. Again, the stories quoted the abstinence advocates, who correctly observed that changing teen attitudes toward sexuality are a major part of this story. But when the discussion turned to the more dramatic declines for poorer women, particularly African-Americans, the expert answer was increased access to long lasting, easy to use contraceptives like Norplant.

That speculation, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. The drop in teen births started during the Clinton era's emphasis on increased access to contraception and continued through the Bush Administration's reversal of policies. The changing patterns preceded welfare reform. They began during a time of prosperity and accelerated during the recent economic downturn.

This compelling good news story can be explained only through an examination of the way sexual mores and childbearing practices change, and recognition that conscious decision-making in African-American and other low-income communities is part of the process.

Politicians and the mainstream press have decried the '90s lack of moral exemplars: Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson had publicized affairs, gansta rappers seized the spotlight. In the meantime, a host of non-famous leaders were making a real difference. It is time we acknowledged their existence.

June Carbone is a professor of law and Presidential Professor of Ethics and the Common Good at Santa Clara University.

Article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle October 24, 2002.

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