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Teen pregnancy perpetuates poverty and ignorance. It is therefore sensible public policy to try to reduce pregnancy rates in urban areas with high poverty rates, such as New London, to break this cycle.
That is why this newspaper endorses the decision to provide students at New London High School, with parental permission, access to condoms and birth control prescriptions at the on-site health clinic run by the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut. New London will not spend education funds on the new services that Child & Family, a state and privately funded agency, will provide under its existing school contract.
According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a child has a 64 percent chance of growing up in poverty if these three factors are present: the mother gave birth as a teen; the parents were unmarried when the child was born; the mother did not receive a high school diploma.
In other words, if these three factors are present, a child's chance of growing up poor is nine times greater than if none of those things happen.
Yet that is what is happening in so many of our nation's centers of poverty. Girls get pregnant at a young age, they don't finish school and, despite whatever their best intentions, they set their children on the same course. An exhaustive study by the Brookings Institute, published in 1998, found that virtually all of the increase in child poverty between 1980 and 1996 was related to the increase in non-marital childbearing, with half of never-married mothers beginning their childbearing as teens.
The issues involved are myriad and complex. They include an entertainment industry that glorifies and promotes casual sexual activity, but often shies from the topic of its implications or its prevention. They involve government policies that can discourage young mothers from fostering a relationship with fathers for fear of lost benefits. Nearly 80 percent of fathers of children born to teen mothers do not marry the mothers, paying on average less than $800 annually in child support, a 1997 Urban Institute study found. Also a factor is a diminished importance placed on marriage and a blithe unawareness or disregard for the implications of birthing a child without adequate means of support, financially or paternally. About one-fourth of teenage mothers have a second child within 24 months of the first birth, according to a study published in Family Planning Perspectives, a journal focused on reproductive issues.
No one program can counter the many factors underlying this societal challenge, but the steps that will begin March 1 at NLHS are steps in the right direction. The expanded services will only be available to students whose parents have signed them up to receive services at the school-based clinic. That covers about three-quarters of the student body. Those parents will receive a letter about the contraceptive program being added to the health services and provided the opportunity to opt out.
Parental approval is critical because parents deserve control over the health services their children receive.
Students seeking contraceptives through the program will receive counseling about the emotional, physical and life-changing implications of becoming sexually active and the benefits that can come from abstinence until reaching a stage of greater maturity.
Those students who are sexually active or suspect they may become active will be provided with both condoms and a contraceptive prescription for pills, injections or a patch. In addition to preventing unwanted pregnancies, the promotion encouraging condom use can reduce sexually transmitted diseases. A 2010 Ledge Light Health District report found that Chlamydia infections among New London teens at twice the state and national average, with high incidences of gonorrhea as well.
In a perfect world, perhaps, teens would resist the temptations of the flesh, parents would be open and comfortable talking about sexuality with their children, and high schools would only have to worry about reading, writing and arithmetic.
That's not this world.