Commentary: A pregnant 17-year-old isn't a personal issue

Raleigh News & ObserverSeptember 3, 2008 

When news about Alaska Gov. and Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin's pregnant teenage daughter hit the airwaves, Sen. Barack Obama wisely stayed on the high road, urging the press to back off.

A teen pregnancy, he said, is a personal issue.

I beg to differ.

Just visit the nursery and day care at Mary E. Phillips High School in Southeast Raleigh, where a dozen or so of the alternative school's 125 students are pregnant or are new mothers.

They are living the reality of this statistic: An estimated 50 girls, 15 to 19 years old, get pregnant every day in North Carolina. Abstinence advocates brag that the teen pregnancy rate has flattened in recent years. But, in 2005, more than 18,000 teens got pregnant in this state.

Whatever way you slice the numbers, that's way too many.

So I had to check my ears when I heard a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign refer to Bristol Palin's pregnancy at 17 as not so much a "problem" as a "situation."

This from the party whose brilliant vice presidential pick of 1992, Dan Quayle, criticized Murphy Brown, a broadcast newswoman, for planning to have a baby on her own.

Did I mention Murphy Brown was a fictional TV character?

Call me old-fashioned, but can we please stipulate that a 17-year-old becoming pregnant is indeed a "problem"?

An age-old one, perhaps.

As my buddy Mel Lewis put it: " 'Teenagers in heat' may be one of the very, very few nonpartisan aspects of our society."

Unfortunately, we're not doing much to put out the fire.

The federal government rewards states that, like Alaska, teach abstinence-only sex education in school. Grandma-to-be Palin supports that approach.

Here in North Carolina, only a handful of school districts, including Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro offer more comprehensive sex ed.

The rest of the state's reliance on the abstinence message leads to teens making misinformed decisions about sex, said Kay Phillips, executive director of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention of North Carolina.

One teen to whom Phillips talked was incredulous about getting pregnant. After all, the teen said, she took The Pill on the one day she had had intercourse.

"Comprehensive sex education doesn't teach our children how to have sex," Phillips said. "It gives them information they need about their bodies."

That's information they can use to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases, as well as pregnancy.

It's the very least we can do for girls who don't have the support system, or the cash reserves, of a Bristol Palin.

Unlike her, most of the pregnant girls who attend Mary E. Phillips don't have boyfriends willing to marry them -- no guarantee of a stable home for baby, of course.

The pregnant, 14-year-old attending Raleigh's alternative high school also doesn't have an entire Republican convention cheering for her. But neither does she have a mother willing to expose her pregnancy to the intense scrutiny of a presidential campaign.

Poor Bristol. Poor Levi Johnston, the boyfriend dubbed "superhunky bad-boy ice hockey player" by the New York Daily News.

But also pity the thousands of girls who will get pregnant -- in North Carolina and across the nation.

That ain't personal. That ain't a situation. That's a problem, for us all.

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