True Love Waits. Wait Training. Worth Waiting For. The slogans of teen abstinence programs reveal a basic fact of human nature: teens, sex, and waiting aren't a natural combination.
Over the last 50 years, the wait has gotten longer. In 1950, the average first-time bride was just over 20; in 1998 she was five years older, and her husband was pushing 27. If that June groom had launched into puberty at 12, he'd been waiting more than half his life.
If he had been waiting, that is. Sex is the sugar coating on the drive to reproduce, and that drive is nearly overwhelming. It's supposed to be; it's the survival engine of the human race. Fighting it means fighting a basic bodily instinct, akin to fighting thirst.
Yet despite the conflict between liberals and conservatives on nearly every topic available, this is one point on which they firmly agree: young people absolutely must not have children. Though they disagree on means--conservatives advocate abstinence, liberals favor contraception--they shake hands on that common goal. The younger generation must not produce a younger generation.
But teen pregnancy, in itself, is not such a bad thing. By the age of 18, a young woman's body is well prepared for childbearing. Young men are equally qualified to do their part. Both may have better success at the enterprise than they would in later years, as some health risks--Cesarean section and Down syndrome, for example-- increase with passing years. (The dangers we associate with teen pregnancy, on the other hand, are behavioral, not biological: drug use, STD's, prior abortion, extreme youth, and lack of prenatal care.) A woman's fertility has already begun to decline at 25--one reason the population-control crowd promotes delayed childbearing. Early childbearing also rewards a woman's health with added protection against breast cancer.
Younger moms and dads are likely be more nimble at child-rearing as well, less apt to be exhausted by toddlers' perpetual motion, less creaky-in-the-joints when it's time to swing from the monkey bars. I suspect that younger parents will also be more patient with boys-will-be-boys rambunction, and less likely than weary 40-somethings to beg pediatricians for drugs to control supposed pathology. Humans are designed to reproduce in their teens, and they're potentially very good at it. That's why they want to so much.
Teen pregnancy is not the problem. Unwed teen pregnancy is the problem. It's childbearing outside marriage that causes all the trouble. Restore an environment that supports younger marriage, and you won't have to fight biology for a decade or more.
Of course, those were the days when grown teens were presumed to be truly "young adults." It's hard for us to imagine such a thing today. It's not that young people are inherently incapable of responsibility--history disproves that--but that we no longer expect it. Only a few decades ago a high school diploma was taken as proof of adulthood, or at least as a promise that the skinny kid holding it was ready to start acting like one. Many a boy went from graduation to a world of daily labor that he would not leave until he was gray; many a girl began turning a corner of a small apartment into a nursery. Expectations may have been humble, but they were achievable, and many good families were formed this way.
Hidden in that scenario is an unstated presumption, that a young adult can earn enough to support a family. Over the course of history, the age of marriage has generally been bounded by puberty on the one hand, and the ability to support a family on the other. In good times, folks marry young; when prospects are poor, couples struggle and save toward their wedding day. A culture where men don't marry until 27 would normally feature elements like repeated crop failures or economic depression.
That's not the case in America today. Instead we have an artificial situation which causes marriage to be delayed. The age that a man, or woman, can earn a reasonable income has been steadily increasing as education has been dumbed down. The condition of basic employability that used to be demonstrated by a high school diploma now requires a Bachelor's degree, and professional careers that used to be accessible with a Bachelor's now require a Master's degree or more. Years keep passing while kids keep trying to attain the credentials that adult earning requires.