Village Life News: November 21, 1996 By Melissa Lauber
With trembling fingers, Margaret Randall (not her real name) shifted the four-pound body of a newborn baby. She didn't know his name. His 12-year old mother was still making up her mind. Randall didn't blame the mother for not having a name. As she worked, doctors were trying to make clear to the young woman that she had syphilis.
Randall's fingers had no reason to shake. As a nurse in the neonatal unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, she has changed thousands of diapers. But on this day, the tiny newborn had soulmates all around him. Three others had entered the world that day, all children of mothers under the age of 13.
"Sometimes it just gets to you," she said. "Sometimes you get so angry at these kids for being victims. These babies will go home to be raised in homes where drugs and poverty are like members of the family. You want to shake your fist at God. These are God's children. But he seems very much like an absentee father."
When she leaves work, Randall will undoubtedly reach under the passenger's seat and distribute the tuna fish, crackers and fruit she keeps there for the panhandlers that often are outside the city hospital.
They ask her for money all the time. Uncertain of what the money will be used for, she prefers to give them food. On several occasions, she's watched in her rear view mirror as the beggars have thrown the food to the ground in disgust.
In her darkest moments, Randall wonders if society isn't treating the girls lying in the maternity ward the same way the
Experts agree that teen age pregnancy in the United States has reached "calamity proportions." Consider the statistics:
In addition, there is the devastating social cost. One study, for example, found that nine out of ten prison inmates queried were products of adolescent pregnancies.
President Bill Clinton has called teenage pregnancy "one of our most pressing social problems." He has also called it "a crisis of the spirit."
In a much acclaimed policy report by the Progressive Policy Institute, entitled "Teenage Pregnancy A Preventable Calamity," Kathy Sylvester called for a change in "both the culture of acceptance and the context in which teenagers make decisions about sex and childbearing."
In this arena, people of faith can, and do, shine. However, all too often, religious institutions get bogged down in the moral stance of whether to offer abstinence or contraception as the appropriate lesson to teens who are struggling in a culture where sex is celebrated as a rite of passage that holds few consequences and little responsibility.
The answer to such a debate seems almost inconsequential. Today's realities call for religion to speak out with authority and purpose about what is right. Children having babies is not a morally ambivalent topic.
However, these potential young mothers and fathers must be addressed, with honesty and compassion, face to face within their communities. Emotionally distant pontification and sermonizing holds little validity in the realities of the teenage culture. This is a mission field that demands hands-on and heart-felt sincerity.
All is not bleak in the issue of teen pregnancy. In an October radio message, Clinton highlighted "a report by the Centers for Disease Control showing that last year the teen birth rate went down for the fourth year in a row. And, even more encouraging, the out-of-wedlock birth rate declined for the first time in 20 years.
"We are saying to young men and young women alike, it is wrong to get pregnant or father a child until you are married and ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. And all across America - in our religious institutions, our schools, our neighborhoods, our work places - our people are banding together, teaching young people right from wrong and helping steer them on the right path. We are supporting many school and community-based efforts, especially those that promote abstinence to reduce teen pregnancy," the president said.
While many people may be on the right path, 12-year-old children still scream in labor and four-pound newborns make their nurses' fingers tremble, and the clock keeps ticking. Twenty-six seconds have just passed.
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