BILL CRAWFORD: Social norms must change on teen births

By Bill Crawford

Calling Mississippi’s nation-leading teen pregnancy rate an “epidemic,” Gov. Phil Bryant said, “Churches, schools, community organizations and most importantly, families, must realize that the highest teen pregnancy rate in America will eventually cripple our state.”
He challenged Mississippians to become as intolerant of teen pregnancy as they have smoking. “Forty years ago many of you here today would be smoking during this ceremony,” he said during his inauguration. “It was the norm and few would have noticed. Society, however, decided that smoking was harmful and a slow but certain repudiation of the habit began.”
“A similar repudiation of teen pregnancy must begin throughout Mississippi society,” he said.
As the governor noted, it takes time to change public norms. Smoking intolerance began when research linked smoking to lung cancer. Litigation and growing health concerns pushed smoking to the national forefront. Cigarette advertising grew more regulated. TV shows and movies quit showing actors smoking. Research showed exposure to secondhand smoke threatened children and seniors. Smokefree and stop smoking media campaigns mushroomed. Businesses, communities, and states started to ban smoking. Over 50 years, attitudes toward smoking turned 180 degrees.
Like smoking, research has linked teen pregnancy and related teen sexual activities to infant health risks, sexually transmitted diseases, and negative health and employment outcomes for teen mothers. Attention to these concerns is growing. But this is where the path to teen pregnancy intolerance veers from smoking intolerance. There is no related litigation, no means to ban such behavior, and no move to eliminate sex-based advertising to teens.
That doesn’t mean there is no path, but it will be different and more difficult.
The Legislature, with backing from the governor, is moving to strengthen the existing Child Protection Act. It targets adults who prey on minors. Reports say more than half of illegitimate teen pregnancies are caused by adult men (age 20 and up).
“Any adult male who fathers a child with a teenage mother under the age of consent should be sought out and prosecuted as a sexual predator,” said Bryant.
Last session, the Legislature required every public school district to adopt either an “abstinence only” or “abstinence-plus” sex education policy by June of this year. Research shows abstinence-plus programs have greater impact than abstinence-only programs. But, many parents oppose such education in schools.
Effective programs in other states promote abstinence; provide research-based, medically accurate sex education; provide access to contraceptive, prenatal and general health services; provide school nurse and/or community based intervention programs; and conduct public awareness and education campaigns.
Gov. Bryant told his health and welfare agency heads to provide him an “aggressive plan” to curb teen pregnancy by the end of this week. It will need church, school, community organization and family support to succeed.
Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian. Contact him at crawford@gmail.com.