by Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D
Published at ToTheSource.org January 22, 2008.
Teenage sex is in the news, between teen celebrity baby stories, movies depicting teen pregnancy and yet another statistical report showing an increase in teen pregnancy. What should Christian parents and pastors make of all this? Should we give up on teaching abstinence and just stay in bed with the covers pulled over our heads? If we can conquer our embarrassment, we can view these developments as invaluable “teaching moments.”
First, let’s try to take an objective look at the data. The preliminary data from the CDC showed that the teen birth rate rose 3% in 2006, the first rise since 1991. US headlines confidently declared that this increase proves the end of abstinence education. But we can draw more subtle, and more hopeful, lessons from the CDC report.
First, the overall birth rate increased so substantially that we could call it another Baby Boom. The general fertility rate increased 3% between 2005 and 2006, to 68.4 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44, the highest level since 1991. The increase in the teen birth rate is roughly this same 3%. The preliminary estimate of births in 2006 was over 4 million, the largest single-year increase in the number of births since 1989 and the largest number of births in any single year since 1961.
In my view, the overall rise in births is good news, a welcome relief from the seemingly relentless population collapse around the developed world. Every new baby is a sign of hope, a sign that someone believes in the future. You might even say that this is an implicitly pro-life message. Women are keeping their babies rather than aborting them.
Hollywood has gotten that message, even if the news media has not. The surprise hit movie Juno is profoundly pro-life. The title character, a pregnant 16 year-old, turns away from an abortion clinic. One of her classmates picketing outside the clinic tells her, “Your baby has fingernails.” Juno can’t get the image of baby fingernails out of her mind. The movie tells the story of her determination to place her baby up for adoption. The story ends happily for her: her father supports her; her boyfriend comes to love her; her baby ends up in good hands.
While it is good news that the birthrate is up, there is reason for concern. The unmarried mothers’ birth rate rose over twice as much as the teen birth rate; the birth rate rose 7% in 2006 to 50.6 per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15-44 years. And this increase is not just among teens: in every age group, the percentage of babies born to unmarried mothers increased. Over all, more than one and a half million children were born into the family form that is statistically likely to leave them in poverty, jeopardize their chance for higher education and give them tenuous relationship with their fathers.
But the rise in unmarried births did not make the headlines.
Why are increasing numbers of women choosing unmarried childbearing? Some women have not been able to find a spouse. Others have come to the conclusion that men are a nuisance and unnecessary for their children. Still other women have focused so much on their careers that they allowed no time for marriage and children until their thirties. By that time their marriage chances may be reduced and their fertility impaired.
It is hard to describe these women who have delayed marriage and children as irresponsible since they are following the prescribed cultural script. “You are an intelligent, gifted woman. You can do anything you put your mind to. Get an education, then an advanced degree. Establish yourself in your career. Pay off your student loans. Then get married. Buy a house. Only then should you think about starting a family.”
By the time a woman has followed all these steps her biological clock is ticking. Loudly. Not all women will be successful at finding a husband and having a baby within the relatively small window of opportunity that remains open to her. With time running out, we shouldn’t be surprised if some educated, affluent women decide to skip the Husband Step and go straight to the Baby Step.
There is something seriously strange when society can’t bring itself to tell kids to postpone sex until marriage but insists that women postpone marriage until they are nearly menopausal.