Several years ago, People magazine put the issue of teen pregnancy on its cover, filling the pages with the voices of real teens. I wish that every young girl in this country could hear what one young mother had to say: "I made a mistake, and I'm going to have to live with it. But I won't have normal life."
This young mother was right. Teens who have children don't have a normal life. Instead of doing what teenagers should be doing -- going to school, playing sports, hanging out with friends, filling out college applications -- teen mothers buy diapers, baby food and formula, spend long and sleepless nights caring for a sick baby, and say no when their friends are off to the mall or a movie.
It appears, though, that teens are getting the message. Although four out of 10 girls in this country become pregnant at least once by the time they're 20, and one out of every five goes on to become a teen mother, recent statistics are encouraging. Teen pregnancy rates, which increased steadily through the '70s and '80s, have now declined for the fifth consecutive year. Since they peaked in 1991, the numbers have dropped 15 percent.
It is important not to allow ourselves to become complacent, though, because the news is not all good. Despite the significant decline in teen pregnancies and births, the United States stands first among all industrialized countries in both categories.
Furthermore, few teen mothers today are married. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of married teens who gave birth declined 23 percent. And although that rate has stabilized, 79 percent of teen mothers are unmarried. The impact of motherhood on these girls, their children and their communities is profound.
Compared to children who grow up in two-parent families, children of single mothers are more likely to live in poverty. And they are more likely to have health, school and behavioral problems than other children.
Here in our nation's capital, teen pregnancy rates have declined along with those in other parts of the country, and many children are thriving. But by any measure, too many are left behind.
This week, in response to the problem, I will join a group of prominent D.C. activists and community leaders to launch the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. The DC Campaign is modeled on the nonprofit, nonpartisan, privately funded National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which was created in 1996 in response to a challenge from the President to reduce teen pregnancy. Since its earliest days, I've been privileged to work with the National Campaign, turning a spotlight on programs that make a difference in the lives of our children. Now, I'm pleased to have the opportunity to support the DC Campaign and its goal of reducing teen births 50 percent by the year 2005.
This week at the White House, as part of a day-long celebration of the new campaign, we'll honor local programs that work -- five groups that are making a real difference in the lives of teens and their children here in our nation's capital. The honorees include a pregnancy-prevention project that operates in elementary schools, a group that provides medical care to young women and children without insurance, and an organization that strives to help boys and young men find the path to a promising lifestyle.
Groups like these teach us various ways to help reduce teen pregnancy. But the best deterrent, still, remains the strong support and guidance of parents. Teens with caring, consistent parents or other adults who are willing to talk about love, sex and relationships in the context of values are less likely to become pregnant or be responsible for a pregnancy than teens who are on their own.
The National Campaign offers a series of "tips" for parents and other adults -- from maintaining strong, close relationships with children to setting clear expectations and communicating honestly and often about important matters. In addition, parents must supervise and monitor their children, know their children's friends and their families, and offer options for the future that are more attractive than early pregnancy and parenthood.
Finally, the campaign adds: "It's never too late to improve a relationship with a child or teenager. Don't underestimate the great need that children feel -- at all ages -- for a close relationship with their parents and for their parents' guidance, approval and support."
And don't forget this heartening statistic: When MTV asked teens to list their heroes, the number one answer was "my parents."
Forget about having "The Talk" with your children. What they need is an 18-year conversation with you or some other adult who cares. It's not too late -- you can start today.
Note: If you're interested in learning more about preventing teen pregnancy, look for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy at www.teenpregnancy.org or call 1-202-261-5655.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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