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Is This Any Way to Stop the Teenage Pregnancy Crisis?

Robin Abcarian co-hosts a morning talk show on radio station KMPC-AM (710)

In the waning days of the 20th century, there are many ways a gal can end up on the wrong side of the law, but this one came as a surprise even to me: Amanda Smisek, a high school senior with good grades, was convicted last year of fornication.

Yes, you read that right.

Amanda lives in Emmett, Idaho. And in Idaho, unfortunately, there remains on the books an anti-fornication statute that makes it a crime for two unmarried people to have sex.

One Idaho prosecutor has revived this once-forgotten law with a vengeance and has brought charges against at least eight girls and their boyfriends. The idea, apparently, is to discourage teen pregnancy, a perfectly worthy social goal. Using, in this case, a perfectly loony method.

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It became clear to this prosecutor that Amanda had--why is this so hard for me to write?--fornicated.

Because, of course, Amanda was pregnant. When she was notified of the charges, Amanda said, “I didn’t even know what fornication was. I had to look it up. It’s any unmarried person who has sex, and they got me on that.”

For her “crime,” which resulted in the birth of an illicit bundle of joy named Tyler six days after she was sentenced in May, Amanda received a month of juvenile detention, suspended, plus three years’ probation. She has also been ordered to stay in school, keep her waitressing job and attend parenting classes.

Personally, I would have pleaded religious miracle (if the star was lit, you must acquit), but the prosecutor also nabbed Amanda’s partner in crime, her 16-year-old boyfriend, Chris Lay, whom she says she plans to marry after high school graduation.

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“Ultimately,” said a supporter of the prosecutions, “what we see in Emmett is going to be seen across the country.”

And you thought the courts were already clogged.

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The problems of teen pregnancy are well recognized by now: They have become staples of political speeches about welfare reform, the crime rate, education. (Pick a social problem; teen pregnancy will be found somehow to exacerbate it.)

In the last couple of years, as well, it has become fashionable to talk about teen pregnancy in terms of the sexual exploitation of young women; according to the state Senate Office of Research, two-thirds of the babies born to California’s teen mothers are fathered by men 20 and older. As a result, this state and many others are putting money and effort into the phenomenon seen in Idaho: renewed enforcement of old laws--in our case, statutory rape. California has dedicated more than $8 million to the enforcement of the statutory rape law in the last year, and according to news reports, this has resulted in nearly 300 convictions, up from practically none. Percentage-wise, not so great: the number of convictions represents about 1% of the estimated 30,000 babies born to teen mothers and adult fathers.

It’s too early to tell whether prosecuting adult men on statutory rape charges will have the intended effect--that is, to put a crimp in the teen birthrate. Seems to me it might just give adult men a push in the direction of better contraception.

How will we prove their misdeeds then?

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The Idaho prosecutions illustrate that, as always, punishment is the political path of least resistance when it comes to thorny social issues such as discouraging teens from having babies. Certainly, such prosecutions do nothing to encourage pregnant teens to seek help.

And nothing good ever comes from a teenager hiding a pregnancy.

Consider the case of a champion high school golfer in Oregon who has pleaded guilty to juvenile charges of criminally negligent homicide and concealing a birth. Kirsten Sundberg, now 18 and a college freshman, hid her pregnancy. Then, in November 1995, at 17, she gave birth to a baby at home in her bathroom as her parents slept. Seven weeks earlier, she had won a regional golf championship.

The baby, it was determined later, was born in a breech position and apparently suffocated during the birth. Her attorney said Kirsten thought the baby was born dead. She has not been accused of trying to harm the baby, and the prosecutor in her case plans to recommend probation when Kirsten is sentenced next month.

Exactly what social goals are accomplished by these after-the-fact prosecutions is not clear. Wouldn’t it make better sense, and accomplish more, to put our money and energy into sex education and contraception?

Amanda Smisek was prosecuted for having the nerve not to hide an unplanned pregnancy she brought to term; Kirsten Sundberg was prosecuted for the opposite reason.

Doesn’t it seem that we are telling our teens, implicitly anyway, that abortion is the best solution to unwanted pregnancy? For some, it may be. For the rest, prosecution is hardly a sane alternative.

* Robin Abcarian’s column appears on Wednesdays.

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