The Norplant Option

Now that Congress and President Clinton have opted to use the threat of utter destitution to dissuade poor teen-agers and women from having children on the public dole, it’s time to revive a more humane, and perhaps more effective, proposal with the same objective.

This idea surfaced briefly and spectacularly in 1990, when the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested in an editorial that perhaps some welfare mothers should be “offered an increased benefit” if they would agree to practice effective birth control–specifically, to use the then-new Norplant contraceptive, which prevents pregnancy for five years after being implanted under the skin of the upper arm.

An uproar followed. The editorial writers–who had insensitively suggested a desire to reduce births of poor black babies in particular–were savaged by many Inquirer staffers and others as racist advocates of eugenics, even of “genocide.” They also caught it from some abortion-rights zealots, who are suspicious of any government efforts to influence reproductive choices, and from conservatives, who think the only proper way to discourage teen pregnancy is to preach abstinence. The newspaper abjectly apologized for a “misguided and wrongheaded editorial opinion.” And ever since, the whole subject has been taboo.

But it’s still a good idea, for poor girls and women themselves, and for the rest of us. Millions of babies are being born to poor teen-agers so lacking in elementary skills, work habits, and self-discipline that they are unlikely to be either responsible parents or self-supporting providers. Many of these babies grow up in squalor and themselves become dependent denizens of the welfare culture.

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