In 1990 the National Office of Education Statistics produced some astounding poll results. When 10th-graders were asked whether they would consider having a child without being married, only 53% said no. The remaining 47% said either they would or they weren't sure.
These results should be emblazoned in everyone's mind now that two Kentucky high school juniors are suing their school board for denying them entrance into the National Honor Society apparently because they are unwed mothers. The two 17-year-olds, Somer Chipman and (yes, really) Chasity Glass, merely reflect the shrugging attitude toward marriage shared by almost half of their peers.
It's hardly the kids' fault. Adults have taught them that rearing children within marriage is merely one of life's varied options. Nationwide, the out-of-wedlock birthrate stands at over 32%; in some areas, especially in the inner city, the rate is more than double that. Almost every week we read about a celebrity who has chosen to go dadless, with Jodie Foster the most recent example.
In many places, high schools provide day care centers for students' babies. Unmarried teen mothers have been honored as cheerleaders, homecoming queens and class presidents. Such efforts may seem compassionate, but they send an unmistakable message that unwed teen childbearing is normal.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Ms. Glass and Ms. Chipman in their suit, argues that this is a case of sex discrimination. According to the ACLU, the girls are being punished for engaging in premarital sex. Since no boy has been disowned by the National Honor Society for having sexâ€”ergo, the girls are victims.
"We are individuals and deserve fair and equal treatment," says Ms. Chipman. Thus one of the country's major social problems turns into a question of individual rights. And a benign slap on the wrist for those who exacerbate that problem becomes an extreme and legally actionable personal affront. Never mind that nobody is talking about kicking the two girls out of school, sending them to Aunt Mary's in Dubuque for six months and then tearing them away from their babies, or, as Sara Mandlebaurn of the ACLU accused, making them wear "a scarlet P."
Like the ACLU, school authorities appear to have made the defining issue premarital sex rather than out-of-wedlock childbearing. In doing so, they may be giving unwitting support to the prevailing blasÃ© attitude about marriage. "The admissions committee did not feel that someone who had engaged in premarital sex should be held up as a role model," explained Donald J. Ruberg, lawyer for the board of education.
Of course it's true that high school kids shouldn't be having sexâ€”but unwed childbearing is a much graver matter. Emphasizing sex allows unwed young mothers, in time-honored adolescent fashion, to denounce their elders for hypocrisy. "I made a mistake," concedes Ms. Glass. "It's just that others haven't gotten caught." A tellingly childish phrase, "getting caught"â€”as if becoming pregnant were the equivalent of exceeding the speed limit and being unlucky enough to be seen by a policeman.
Another issue clouds the more fundamental problem of out-of-wedlock childbearing: welfare. If the image of the welfare-dependent teenage mother is the embodiment of the problem, then the high-achieving student-mother becomes a heroine. "Not all teen mothers are stereotypes," Ms. Glass argues. "I want to be a teacher. I didn't drop out of school."
Thus what should be a cautionary tale becomes an inspirational oneâ€”a story of an Everyteen who succumbs to sexual temptation. Meeting what Ms. Glass refers to as "the challenge of being a teenage mother," she overcomes great odds and becomes an exemplary student. The language of a New York Times editorial captures the spirit exactly: "Ms. Chipman's and Ms. Glass' achievementsâ€”doing well in school in spite of their parental responsibilities â€”prove that an unplanned pregnancy does not have to derail a student's academic career and aspirations. Any honor society chapter should be proud to count them as members. "
If, idealistic and hungry for accessible tales of moral courage, many adolescents romanticize their mothering peers, others, deprived of any language of moral seriousness, merely wonder what's the big deal. Ms. Glass has stated her intention of speaking out to her fellow teens about the stresses of unwed motherhood. But with her blonde, perky good looks, her adorable baby, her high grades and, if she prevails in court, her position in the National Honor Society, Ms. Glass will be no more convincing a poster child for the perils of out-of-wedlock motherhood than will Jodie Foster. She's doing great. What's the problem?
The young have only the moral materials we hand down to them with which to reconstruct the world. The National Honor Society is right to reject the idea that childrearing within marriage is merely a matter of personal preference.