Madison Avenue Enters Battle Against Teen-Age Pregnancy

Times Staff Writer

The fight against teen-age pregnancy has moved to a significant new battleground: the world of advertising.

At its second annual national conference on adolescent pregnancy here, the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) unveiled a slick, five-year ad campaign sure to catch the eye, and, hopefully, provoke action.

Already, in Washington subways people are doing double takes at billboard-style ads like the one featuring the profile of a very pregnant adolescent. The billboard asks, in words printed just below her swollen abdomen, "Will your child learn to multiply before she learns to subtract?"

Another ad trumpets the message: "Last year, 125,000 junior high students flunked this simple test." Below the words is a picture of a home pregnancy testing kit.

It is pretty strong stuff for commuters. But teen-age pregnancy, says CDF president Marian Wright Edelman, is a pretty strong problem.

More than 180,000 girls under age 18 gave birth in 1983, severely crippling their chances of completing high school and living above the poverty level. In all, in 1983 there were 1.1 million teen-age pregnancies, resulting in 499,038 births.

Public service announcements also are planned for nationwide television and radio, and the 1,458 participants in last week's conference were buying up posters of the ads like mad to display in schools, meeting rooms and other places where teen-agers congregate.

The goal of the media campaign, Edelman said, is to make combating teen-age pregnancy a national priority.

"Teen-age pregnancy is not in the forefront of the nation's issue agenda," said Edelman, a former civil rights and NAACP activist who was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. In 1973, she founded the Children's Defense Fund, a liberal-leaning children's lobby that this year has a $4.6-million budget financed through individual, corporate and foundation donations.

'Absolutely Terrified'

"We're absolutely terrified about it," Edelman said of the hard-hitting media campaign. "But we have to take risks."

The billboard-style ads will appear on buses and light-rail commuter systems in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Washington. The first phase of the campaign is aimed at adults.

"Adults have the authority, resources and responsibility to respond to and speak out to young people at risk of pregnancy," Edelman said.

Edelman feels that many adults may not consider themselves involved with the problem of teen-age pregnancy, and she wants to educate them to the wide scope and economic cost of the problem.

"Most teen mothers have not completed high school," Edelman said. "Many are still in junior high and a majority drop out of school. Nearly one in two does not get early prenatal care, one in five has a low-birth-weight baby, one in three depends on Medicaid for her delivery costs and too many end up on welfare for lack of skills needed to get a job."

Although births among teen-age mothers are dropping, dipping below 500,000 in 1983 for the first time since the 1950s, problems associated with teen-age births are becoming more acute, because of other societal changes.

Trapped in Poverty

Out-of-wedlock teen-age births and single-parent families are increasing, bringing an accompanying increase in poverty. Joblessness, particularly for young, black males, is increasing, which decreases the chances that teen-age mothers will marry an income-producing man, or have a good-paying job themselves. The end result is that teen-age mothers and their babies are poorer and more trapped in their poverty than teen-age mothers were 20 years ago.

Conference participants, including 38 people from California, sought to explore a number of questions:

--Has the society become too permissive? Or is there not enough sex education?

--Does welfare exacerbate the problem? Or are there not enough federal programs to aid teen-age mothers?

--Isn't there a way to get fathers more involved in this problem?

--Can society attack the teen-age pregnancy issue separately from the greater dilemma of poverty itself?

--Are there ways for people to work together to solve the problem, especially in the legislatures, without getting sidetracked in an emotional abortion argument?

--Should the focus be on prevention? Or on helping teen-age parents and their children? In the face of Gramm-Rudman budget cuts, can either one be done in poor areas?

--Does the mass media glamorize sex too much? And if so, what can be done about that?

--What can be done about any of it?

'No Quick Fixes'

"There is no answer. There are no quick fixes. There are only first steps," Edelman told many of the participants at a luncheon. "We must resist despair."

Edelman did have some bits of advice for the participants:

--"Moralizing will not solve the teen pregnancy problem," she said. "Moral adults will. You cannot expect young people to be different from adults, from the Mick Jaggers and Jessica Langes of this world. They need better examples of behavior." (Jagger, a rock star, and Lange, an actress, both have had children out of wedlock amid worldwide publicity.)

--"We should all be working for state mandates for family education and decision-making courses in our schools."

--"We need peer counseling and more monitoring for boys as well as girls, from police clubs, church groups, fraternities, sororities and other community groups."

The conference participants also spent an afternoon lobbying Congress, many of them for the first time, in an effort simply to make the officials aware of the problem and of their interest in it.

The conference participants were almost all women, but were a mixed group in every other way: age, race and occupation. The March of Dimes, Planned Parenthood, Girls Clubs, nurses, professors and public and private health and family care providers came from every state except Nevada and Hawaii to share ideas and boost their spirits.

Workshop Focus

"It's very stimulating to be around all these people you read about," said Elaine McKenzie, a health center manager who came from Fairbanks, Alaska.

"And," added Patricia Strohm of the Washington, D.C., Junior League, "to know you're not trying to do this alone with your staff of 14."

"It's like coming to the well," said Patricia Pruden Mohr of the Hacienda La Puente (Calif.) Unified School District. "You go back with courage and inspiration to keep on the move."

Three days of workshops and speeches focused primarily on what the participants could do on a small scale on the local level. Many presentations like the ones entitled "What One Health Practitioner Can Do," "What One School District Can Do," and "What One Parent Can Do," got down to the nuts and bolts of personal involvement, how to manage programs, whom to call, what to say. Do you know a car dealer? Maybe the dealer could be persuaded to lend or donate a van to transport kids to a health clinic or counseling programs. Do you know any grandparents? Maybe they could be coaxed into baby-sitting while a teen-age mother goes to night school. Do you know someone who owns a business? Perhaps he could be convinced to give a teen-ager a summer job. And so on.

The general emphasis of the many workshops was on giving young people self-esteem and a vision of a productive future, securing them health care (including contraception), explaining the responsibilities of family life and keeping them busy. The participants were also loaded down with printed information and statistics.

Need for Collaboration

"There is a multitude of material I'm taking home to digest," said Jane Lukes of the Los Angeles Booth Memorial Center, a multi-service agency for pregnant teen-agers and teen-age parents.

"What came out of it," said Helen Shorrock of the California Alliance Concerned with School-age Parents, "is our need for collaborative efforts, from the social services, business, volunteer and health organizations."

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