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As infants, the offspring of teen mothers have high rates of illness and mortality. Later in life, they often experience educational and emotional problems. Many are victims of child abuse at the hands of parents too immature to understand why their baby is crying or how their doll-like plaything has suddenly developed a will of its own. Finally, these children of children are prone to dropping out and becoming teenage parents themselves. According to one study, 82% of girls who give birth at age 15 or younger were daughters of teenage mothers.
With disadvantage creating disadvantage, it is no wonder that teen pregnancy is widely viewed as the very hub of the U.S. poverty cycle. "A lot of the so-called feminization of poverty starts off with teenagers' having babies," says Lucile Dismukes of the Council on Maternal and Infant Health in Atlanta, a state advisory group. "So many can't rise above it to go back to school or get job skills."
Among the underclass in America's urban ghettos, the trends are especially disturbing. Nearly half of black females in the U.S. are pregnant by age 20. The pregnancy rate among those ages 15 to 19 is almost twice what it is among whites. Worse still, nearly 90% of the babies born to blacks in this age group are born out of wedlock; most are raised in fatherless homes with little economic opportunity. "When you look at the numbers, teenage pregnancies are of cosmic danger to the black community," declares Eleanor Holmes Norton, law professor at Georgetown University and a leading black scholar. "Teenage pregnancy ranks near the very top of issues facing black people."
The shocking prevalence of teenage pregnancy among white as well as black Americans was brought to light earlier this year, when the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research center in New York City, released the results of a 37-country study. Its findings: the U.S. leads nearly all other developed nations in its incidence of pregnancy among girls ages 15 through 19. As a point of comparison, AGI investigators looked at five other Western countries in detail: Sweden, Holland, France, Canada and Britain (see chart). Though American adolescents were no more sexually active than their counterparts in these countries, they were found to be many times as likely to become pregnant. And while black teenagers in the U.S. have a higher pregnancy rate than whites, whites alone had nearly double the rate of their British and French peers and six times the rate of the Dutch. Observes AGI President Jeannie Rosoff: "It's not a black problem. It's not just an East Coast problem. It's a problem for all of us."
It is also a complex problem, one that strikes many sensitive nerves. The subject of teenage pregnancy seems to raise almost every politically explosive social issue facing the American public: the battle over abortion rights; contraceptives and the ticklish question of whether adolescents should have easy access to them; the perennially touchy subject of sex education in public schools; controversies about welfare programs; and the precarious state of the black family in America. Indeed, even the basic issue of adolescent sexuality is a subject that makes many Americans squirm.