January 15, 2008

Teen Pregnancy

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Too often these days, big problems get buried by rhetoric.  Teen pregnancy in Wisconsin is a case in point.  Policymakers were quick to trumpet drops in our state’s teen pregnancy rate during the past decade.  Lately, though, there’s been a failure to follow through with the progressive agenda that led to the drop in the first place.  The result is that Wisconsin’s once-declining teen pregnancy rate has plateaud over the past few years, without much public notice.

Teen pregnancy today is no less destructive than it was years ago.  Just as it did a decade ago, it has a remarkably subtle but pervasive negative impact on society.  For example: 

  • Teen mothers and their children are less likely to graduate high school than are other mothers and their children.  
  • Families with teen mothers are more likely to live below the poverty line and end up on welfare. 
  • Children of teen parents have a higher rate of incarceration than their peers and are more likely to be teen parents themselves.
  • A recent study reports that each teen birth costs the Wisconsin $80,000 per year in human and financial capital
  • Teen pregnancy has been linked to family dysfunction, child abuse and neglect, sexual violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor self-esteem

Teen pregnancy doesn’t just impact mothers and children; it’s not limited to a single segment of society.  It affects schools, businesses, community corrections, and a host of social services.

Surprisingly, though, the widespread nature of teen pregnancy in our society hasn’t led to a substantial cooperative effort to fight it.  Instead of building on mutual recognition of the problem, groups have argued over particular policy solutions, oftentimes refusing to compromise or even consider alternative ways to achieve their goals.

If we’re actually going to do something about teen pregnancy—and not just posture politically—then we’ve got to look for common ground rather than digging in behind the most ‘extreme’ measures (like school-funded contraception).  Even though we might have different opinions as to what the best way to fight teen pregnancy is, there are certain things most of us can agree upon:

  • Educating the public is the best way to permanently lower teen pregnancy rates
  • It’s important that young people have resources they can go to with questions about teen pregnancy
  • Any policy dealing with teen pregnancy needs to ensure that the children of teen mothers are given access to necessities like healthcare and education

Starting with these basic, proven principles, we can implement policy that curbs teen pregnancy.  Whether that policy takes the form of an ad campaign educating young people about the dangers of teen pregnancy, or a series of community forums featuring guest speakers, or a comprehensive healthcare plan like BadgerCare Plus, any policy that even puts a dent in teen pregnancy statistics is an laudable accomplishment.

The time for posturing and rhetoric on teen pregnancy is long gone.  We need policies today that reaffirm our shared commitment to a future free of teen births.  As a start, I’ve authored a simple measure requiring schools to provide comprehensive sexual education to students.  Similar measures have been very successful in other states, both in terms of reducing teen pregnancy rates and in garnering widespread public support.  I hope that my bill can be a starting point, something we can all get behind in the fight against teen pregnancy.  If we don’t act soon, a whole generation will suffer the consequences.