EDITORIAL – Teen pregnancy: A social condition Cayman can’t afford

It’s a rare occasion when the Compass Editorial Board praises declining scores in our high schools. But the reported 44 percent drop in Cayman’s teen pregnancy rate is something to celebrate (albeit, with a fairly large caveat or two).

Recently released figures from the Health Services Authority show that from 2012 to 2016, the territory’s teen pregnancy rate fell to 3.5 percent of all live births — the lowest in a generation. That decline mirrors a global trend of falling teen pregnancy rates since the mid-1990s, and it is good news for Cayman’s young people, particularly young women who disproportionately bear the negative consequences of early pregnancies.

The existence of this single statistic does not, however, by itself prove that teen pregnancy — and more specifically “young single motherhood” — is not a pressing social problem in Cayman.

The trouble is twofold. Not only are the mothers too young, almost universally they are unmarried. There is perhaps no single factor (along with household income, which is related) that correlates more closely with the likely success or failure of a child — including future earnings, education, suicide rate, criminal record, etc. — than whether the child is raised by two parents or one.

Although of course imperfect, the traditional institution of marriage does, at least, indicate a pre-existing commitment between a husband and wife, before they enter into the (arguably more serious) commitment to become mother and father to a child.

When discussing teenage pregnancies, attention tends to fall, unfairly, on the mothers. Scientifically, for every mother there is a father — but only one gender is tethered umbilically to the child for nine months. For the majority of single mothers raising a child, there is a father out there, somewhere, who has been allowed to abdicate his paternal responsibilities.

On the anecdotal front, well-regarded youth worker Michael Myles told the Compass he personally has not seen dramatic declines in the number of pregnant teens. He believes Cayman’s young mothers may be escaping the purview of statisticians by dropping out of school, or choosing to terminate their pregnancies, even though abortion is illegal in Cayman.

Keep in mind, it’s only a short plane flight away to health clinics in the U.S. and Cuba.

A 2013 survey by the Pan American Health Organization reported that 1 in 12 of Cayman’s teens who had become pregnant said they had an abortion. Bafflingly, local health officials do not attempt to collect information on abortions illegally performed in Cayman or sought overseas by Cayman residents.

Even if the statistics are pinpoint-accurate, Cayman’s teen pregnancy still remains relatively common — at great cost to young people, their families, government and our community as a whole.

Adolescent pregnancy is a “major contributor to maternal and child mortality, and to intergenerational cycles of ill-health and poverty,” according to the World Health Organization.

Globally, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years old, according to WHO.

Moreover, teen pregnancy carries a real cost to government and our overall economy, not only in direct payments to social programs, but in lost future earnings.

One study, commissioned by CARICOM in 2009, estimated that teen pregnancy costs are equivalent to 12.3 percent of the Caribbean region’s total gross domestic product, after taking into account the opportunity costs of young mothers leaving school early and consequently seeking lower-wage employment. Using that benchmark, Cayman’s tab for teen pregnancy runs to about $330 million per year.

As a society, Cayman cannot afford to accept complacently that teen pregnancy is one of those “facts of life.”

Cayman’s teens are responsible for their own behavior, but it is necessary for Cayman’s adults to take proactive steps to break the revolving door from the maternity ward to the welfare office — and to put an end to the cycle of teen pregnancy, lost potential and lifelong poverty.