- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2000

In 1975, when "Mary Jean Doe" was 12, she thought she had a crisis pregnancy, courtesy of either her older brother or his college buddy.

Her brother secretly took her to a Planned Parenthood clinic, where counselors assumed she was sexually active and spoke to her about getting an abortion.

The episode ended when Mrs. Doe's period came, but unpleasant memories linger 25 years later.

"No one expressed any dismay, concern or interest that a 12-year-old girl needed a pregnancy test," said Mrs. Doe, who lives in Missouri and asked that her real name not be used.

Clinic workers didn't even ask who the male partner was, said Mrs. Doe, who told her story in a Feminists for Life publication. If they had, "I would have divulged the truth and begged for help."

Today, Mrs. Doe strongly supports stricter enforcement of statutory-rape laws, both to prevent teen pregnancy and to catch child molesters.

Both of the young men who sexually abused her went on to leave "a trail of victims," she explained. Her brother, who has since been arrested for pedophilia, "needed to be caught."

Four years ago, Congress listened to women like Mrs. Doe. In its 1996 welfare law, Congress told states to "aggressively enforce statutory-rape laws" as a way to prevent teen pregnancy and abuse. The idea has been picked up by a few states, with positive results.

Since welfare reform passed, states such as Delaware, Connecticut and California have cracked down on statutory rape.

In Delaware, lawmakers doubled jail time for sexual offenses and started collecting birth data on teen mothers and their partners. Men who are 10 years older than the teen mother may be investigated, a Delaware Health and Social Services spokeswoman said.

Already 60 adults have been arrested and 33 convicted under the new laws, said Delaware Department of Public Safety policy adviser Jeff Taschner.

Connecticut ran a media campaign and created a statutory-rape prosecution unit. The unit has averaged about 100 cases a year and has a 100 percent conviction rate, said Sandra Tullius, a former prosecutor with the unit.

California is brimming with data from its Statutory Rape Vertical Prosecution program, funded with $8 million as part of former Gov. Pete Wilson's $60 million "responsible parenting" campaign.

Fresno County alone has arrested more than 500 adults for statutory rape, said the county's Deputy District Attorney Antonio Alvarez. Out of 346 completed cases, he added, convictions have been obtained in 314. That's "a 91 percent conviction rate," he said.

Similar news has come from elsewhere in California, notably Kern and Stanislaus counties.

Meanwhile, California's teen birth rate has dropped 19 percent from 71 births per 1,000 teens aged 15-19 in 1994 to 57 births per 1,000 teens in 1997.

But the tactic still does not sit well with many crisis-pregnancy workers and community leaders, some of whom find it "politically incorrect," in the words of one teen-pregnancy expert.

For instance, in Virginia, Richmond City Council member John Conrad is talking about reviving a city partnership to prosecute statutory-rape offenders as a way to lower that city's high teen-pregnancy rate.

Mr. Conrad's plan was quickly criticized by community leaders who told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month that going after older males would "traumatize" young families, target black men and "prosecute [people] almost from a cultural standpoint."

These kinds of objections stifle an "honest debate" about the merits of statutory-rape prosecution, said teen-pregnancy expert Kathleen Sylvester. She sees statutory rape as a "critical component" of the problem.

Statutory-rape enforcement is "politically incorrect" in some circles because it labels young men "sexual predators" a big no-no if the young men are minorities, said Ms. Sylvester, who once worked at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank, and now heads the Social Policy Action Network.

The issue also offends some groups because it undermines a girl's sexual autonomy, she said.

"If an adolescent girl isn't competent to consent to sex, then she isn't competent to consent to contraception without parental permission or to have an abortion," Ms. Sylvester wrote last year in the monthly newspaper Youth Today. And that "doesn't comport with [some groups'] position on freedom of choice," she said.

As a result, getting tough on statutory rape ends up as a political fad, Ms. Sylvester told The Times. That's too bad, she added, "because Pete Wilson was right."

Statutory-rape cases can't be pursued unless they're reported, but many crisis-pregnancy workers shy away from such a chore.

One Washington-area nurse who has spent 20 years working with unwed mothers could recall "only one instance" when a clinic worker reported a father.

"He was 23 and she was 12, and the nurse-midwife was so concerned about the relationship that she called the vice squad on him," said the nurse, who asked that neither she nor her clinic be named.

"That illustrates to you how rare it is for a provider to get involved with reporting rape," she said.

Many girls "are pleased that their partner is an older male," said Peggy Eisele, director of Birthright, a privately funded crisis-pregnancy group in Wheaton.

"It's disheartening to me, but there's nothing I can do about it," Mrs. Eisele said.

"They just don't want to get him in trouble or get themselves in more trouble," she said, adding that many girls won't even file for child support.

Congress, meanwhile, has tightened statutory rape reporting rules for clinics that get federal Title X funds.

No federally funded family-planning clinic "shall be exempt from any state law requiring notification or reporting of child abuse, child molestation, sexual abuse, rape or incest," Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican and author of the law, said recently in a letter to every state attorney general.

The law was passed, he added, "because state laws were being ignored in some Title X clinics."

Judith DeSarno, head of a trade group for Title X-funded clinics, said the new law "isn't really a change."

"Title X clinics have always been licensed by states and have always had to obey statutory-rape or incest-reporting rules," said Miss DeSarno, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA).

According to NFPRHA members, most girls "are relieved" when told that their relationship will be reported, she said. "Particularly if they're in an abusive situation, they want you to report it."

Andrea Sheldon Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition questioned how much reporting was going on. The 1999 law, she noted, was prompted by a case in which an Illinois high school teacher repeatedly took a 14-year-old student to a Title X-funded clinic for birth control.

As the teacher expected, Mrs. Lafferty said, clinic workers did not ask the girl about her sex partner.

"So that's why the law was passed," she said, "to remind these clinics to follow state law."

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