Charlie Mitchell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Charlie Mitchell

Mitchell: Teen pregnancy rate reveals clash of ideals for Mississippi

The headline-making item in the 67-page report was that for 2006, little girls in Mississippi led the nation in having babies.

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Jay Leno thought it was funny — not surprising, he said, that a state in the South would have the distinction. But he noted we did it the hard way — without Sarah Palin’s family as residents.

The data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said more than half of the Mississippi women who had babies were not married. Leno had nothing to say about that.

There’s no other topic on which two American ideals are in sharper conflict than pregnancy, especially among teens.

One ideal is that we believe women have no more precious or specific natural right than absolute reproductive freedom.

Whether to conceive and what to do after conception is protected by law at one level, but even more strongly by convention. Making a baby is a private matter — end of discussion.

We also believe — or did — in personal responsibility. It has been a fundamental of freedom to be self-reliant. Can’t really be one without the other. A goal of parents has been to raise children to be independent.

The new numbers came out last week, but the topic of teen pregnancy has been around a while. As rates rose through the 1970s and 1980s, the general “tsk-tsk” was that teens were not “emotionally ready,” even though that remains a highly subjective statement. One 17-year-old may be more emotionally ready for parenthood than an adult who is 35. Also noted has been that odds are especially stacked against a 6-pound baby taken home by an unwed 16-year-old to a battered mobile home in Tchula. But odds can be beaten. Our new president was from what was formerly called a “broken home” and so was Bill Clinton.

Still, the reactions led gradually to today’s wide assortment of assistance programs.

Medicaid most often pays all expenses for pregnant teens in Mississippi and newborns are immediately enrolled and eligible for medical, dental and other health services. Half of all children in Mississippi are on Medicaid. Nutrition programs such as WIC (Women, Infants and Children) are available as are debit cards for groceries. Child care and preschool programs are available, including transportation — followed by public schools with two meals provided per day and summer feeding programs.

Not surprisingly, the reaction to last week’s headline has included calls for more programs, more efforts to level the playing field, as it were, between children born to parents with the means to provide for them and children born to parents without means to provide for them.

But scant attention is paid to why teens become pregnant — especially in the South, especially among the poor and why, after falling for 15 years, the rate started rising again from 2005 to 2006.

The margin is stark. Mississippi’s rate was more than 60 percent higher than the national average.

In Mississippi, 68 of every 1,000 girls 15-19 had a child who is now approaching his or her second birthday. That compares to 19 per 1,000 in New Hampshire.

At 22.6, Mississippi also has the youngest median age for first babies. Of 4.3 million births nationwide, an increase to 1.6 million were to single mothers.

There’s little doubt that individual situations vary widely. People cite everything from naivete to accidents to predation by older males to a scarcity of abortion services in the state to a lack of instruction on birth control and availability of contraceptives. Could be a statistical anomaly, too. Mississippi’s rate has actually been higher than it is now.

Yet it’s a factor normally ignored that really needs more attention. Hundreds of fully aware teens become pregnant intentionally in this state. More directly stated, it’s a choice. Whether due to a false sense of maturity, a desire to keep a romance going or any of thousands of other rationales, hundreds of little girls are deciding to become pregnant. And they limit the definition of “ready” strictly to a willingness to provide love for their child, which they can do. No thought is given to everything else a child will need, which aid programs or relatives will be expected to provide.

So reversing the trend isn’t as simple as offering more sex education or giving away contraceptives or making abortions readily available and free or lectures on abstinence. Getting Mississippi’s teen pregnancy rates at least in balance with the rest of the nation requires understanding why this choice is being made — how the sense of personal responsibility has changed — and then figuring out what to do about it.

(Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at