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The heat is on

Idaho prosecutor: old law, new plan to curb teen pregnancy

Temperatures have dropped in rural Emmett, Idaho, where the Emmett High School Huskies are readying for Friday night's district championship football game. Quarterback Brian Beitia, a promising junior with a penchant for the short pass and a reliance on his running backs, will lead these sons of sawmill workers and cherry growers against nearby Bishop Kelley High School. If Emmett wins, the state championships are two weeks away. Though the highs are in the 40s now, by then the temperatures could be in the single digits.

It's not just the out-of-doors that's cooled, Gem County prosecutor Douglas Varie hopes. His effort to prosecute pregnant teens and their boyfriends under a dusty 1921 law against fornication could help reduce the area's relatively high teen pregnancy rate.

"The cost isn't just in welfare," Mr. Varie has said. "A male child of a single teen mother is more likely to go to jail than a child with two parents."

So far, half a dozen teens have been charged. Only one has pleaded innocent, but because she was 38 weeks pregnant, the judge found her guilty. Most are given suspended sentences and sent to mandated parenting classes. They're also told to stay in school.

It's not that Emmett's pregnancy rate is especially high; at 83 teen pregnancies per 1,000 population, the rate is only about three-quarters of the national average. It's that it's no longer considered odd or wrong for a teenage girl to be pregnant, according to Mr. Varie, who is 33. "As a juvenile, I wouldn't have [broken this law]," he contends. "I was too scared of my parents."

His prosecutions are part of a growing movement to use laws once considered outdated to help make teen sexual activity unacceptable again. The biggest part of the effort has been enforcing laws against statutory rape. Since WORLD first reported on this trend in 1994, more and more states have been warming to the idea.

**red_square** California, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has earmarked money to help counties form Underage Sex Offenses units. The state legislature is also expected to hike the penalty for statutory rape in cases where the girl gets pregnant. Democratic Assemblyman Louis Caldera is pushing another measure that would allow the girls (and families of girls) to file civil suits against the men.

**red_square** Florida, lawmakers approved the MAMA (Make Adult Males Accountable) bill last summer. This new law increases penalties for statutory rape and defines sex with a girl younger than 14 as child abuse.

**red_square** Delaware, the legislature doubled the punishment range for statutory rape and also added the words "child abuse" to the definition; that means that school counselors and other government workers can report suspected crimes without breaking confidentiality rules. Delaware Gov. Tom Carper admits, "We've not been diligent in enforcing these laws, and we are going to become diligent."

**red_square** New York state, the district attorney of Syracuse formed a special bureau that will focus solely on statutory rape offenses. He hopes his office will be able to prosecute 100 to 150 cases each year.

What drives this movement is the appalling number of teen pregnancies--more than a million a year--and the fact that in two-thirds of these pregnancies, the father is age 20 or older. Even President Clinton has indicated his willingness to go along; Henry Foster, the failed surgeon general nominee who now heads the president's campaign to reduce teen pregnancies, has said prosecuting statutory rape cases will be "very important, because we know many of these sexual acts are not consensual."

But Mr. Foster--like state legislatures in the 1970s and '80s--is missing the point. A minor girl, whether willing or not, is unable to give consent: The laws used to state that the male was committing a crime. But in those decades, the idea that teenage sex was inevitable was taking hold; states lowered their ages of consent (two states, Hawaii and Pennsylvania, said the age of consent is 14) and added a "kids-will-be-kids" clause that says sex is okay if the participants are close in age. And in 1981, California removed statutory rape from its definition of child sexual abuse.

That permissive attitude is turning around now, though not without some resistance, especially among some underage girls who refuse to name their older sexual partners. That's not a problem in enforcing anti-fornication laws--teen pregnancy is visible proof of guilt--but it's up to the guilty party to name her partner in crime. Whether other prosecutors will follow Douglas Varie's lead seems doubtful. The ACLU is complaining about selective enforcement, and many politicians couldn't credibly go on record in support of anti-fornication laws. In Emmett, high-schoolers' minds are more on Friday night's game than on the fornication laws.

"Do I think this law will make them think twice? Maybe, I don't know," says Emmett High vice-principal Steve Beitia (the quarterback's dad). "I hope so. I think it might have, in the past, when it was used more."