Fighting Teen Pregnancy: Portrait of a Radical High School Program, 1971
A May 2013 report from the National Center for Health Statistics indicated that the rates of teen pregnancies across the United States — especially among Hispanic teens — had dropped precipitously over the preceding few years. Just one of the startling details: “Teen birth rates fell steeply in the United States from 2007 through 2011, resuming a decline that began in 1991 but was briefly interrupted in 2006 and 2007. The overall rate declined 25% from 41.5 per 1,000 teenagers aged 15-19 in 2007 to 31.3 in 2011 — a record low.”
This is sort of report constitutes good news at a time when so much of what we’re hearing about the state of Americans’ health — especially in light of the ongoing obesity epidemic — is downright depressing. But it’s also worth remembering that teen pregnancy, and the societal issues associated with the issue, have been on the cultural, medical and even the political radar in the U.S. for decades.
Here, LIFE.com looks back four decades, to a remarkable cover story in the April 2, 1971, issue of LIFE magazine titled, quite simply, “Help for High School Mothers,” that chronicled the day-to-day lives of teen moms and moms-to-be in an otherwise typical southern California town called Azusa:
In a public high school classroom [the article began], a 16-year-old student, eight months pregnant and unmarried, presents a book report. Her classmates and teacher are unruffled, for the quiet scene is an everyday event at Citrus High in Azusa, Calif. — and elsewhere around the country where educators are taking radical new approach to an old and painful problem. Until a few years ago, the nation’s public schools dealt with teenage pregnancies by expelling the girls or by putting pressure on them to leave. Many humiliated families arranged secret and illegal abortions for their daughters. Others sent them away to “visit relatives” or, if they could afford it, hid them in private nursing homes.
Today the attitude toward high school mothers is changing dramatically. While teenage pregnancy is just as unwanted and undesirable as ever, more and more parents and schools are trying to help the girls put their lives together again instead of ostracizing them. In nearly every major city programs now exist to meet the special educational, medical and psychological needs of teen-age mothers. In almost every case the programs have won strong community support. . . . Many communities provide medical clinics and counseling for the new mothers — who will number an estimated 200,000 this years.
[That said], there are still not enough programs in the country. A recent study concludes that 75 percent of pregnant teen-agers drop out of school. But more and more girls are making the tough decisions to stay in school, for their own good — and for the future of their babies.
A few weeks later, the letters to the editor published in LIFE in response to the story were mostly negative, along the lines of one from a reader in Manitou Springs, Colo., who wrote that “the April 2 cover sets some sort of new dimension of achievement in crass, lurid, inelegant journalistic bad taste. To proffer a picture of this pathetic schoolchild with her grotesque maternity figure over the bold type ‘High School Pregnancy’ simply makes a bad, sad scene.”
The vice-president of a senior high school class in Redondo Beach, Calif., on the other hand, applauded the teen pregnancy program at Citrus Hill, but went to note that he felt “that the LIFE story was done in the epitome of poor taste. The entire tone of the article was such that one would think the greatest way of getting through high school is by having babies.”