Rosalita, 16, slams the door on the voices of her squabbling parents and hurries down the stairs of her apartment building. She walks down the sidewalk past the chain-link fence and opens her cellphone to call a boy: "I need to talk to you. Can I come over?"
Two months later, Rosalita finds herself fleeing class and hanging over a toilet bowl, sick. She takes a pregnancy test and then asks her boyfriend to meet her next to the Hudson River. "Hang on. That ain't mine, yo," he says when she tells him. "You're getting an abortion." When she says no, he shoves her against the fence, turns around and walks away.
The scenes are from a 19-minute film that the Washington Heights and Inwood Youth Council produced to dramatize the problem of out-of-wedlock births in their community, a largely Hispanic one with lots of poverty and 106 births per 1,000 unmarried Hispanic women. I met with council members at Washington Heights' Manhattan Christian Academy in a room just big enough for a conference table. Dressed casually in sweatshirts and jeans, with their notebooks and fliers spread over the table and their cellphones buzzing, they told me why they chose to address teen pregnancy.
Jennifer Beltre, an 18-year-old now attending Pace University, said her cousin became pregnant at the age of 16 and had to drop out of high school: "To this day she thanks God for her baby, but it has changed her life drastically. . . . If she had the chance to rewind everything, she would do it." Othanya Garcia, the 17-year-old president of the youth council, said her friend had sex without contraceptives, became pregnant, and then aborted the baby: "She didn't know how to take care of herself, take care of her sex life-and she had to end the life of another child."
Members of the Youth Council are working to alert their neighbors to the problem. They dressed guys with fake pregnant bellies to shock people into remembering that it takes two to make a baby. They went out on the streets of Washington Heights and took a community survey. People were surprised that the rate of unwed birth was so high among an ethnic group that traditionally champions marriage and family; parents were disapproving, but teenagers shrugged it off as part of everyday life. Melida Vicenty, 18, pointed to one survey question most people couldn't answer: "What do you think will help decrease teen pregnancy?"
African-Americans such as Christelyn Karazin, author and blogger, are also searching for answers. She has started a "No Wedding, No Womb" movement that calls on women in their community to wait for marriage before they have babies. When Karazin got pregnant with her college boyfriend-a college-educated, church-going man she describes as "husband material"-he told her, "Just because you're pregnant doesn't mean I have to marry you." He didn't, and Karazin thought, "What have I done? I haven't prepared a proper nest for my child. . . . My parents didn't do that. They were ready for me. They planned for me. They were married."
Karazin did the best she could, but she says of her now 13-year-old daughter, "There's some part of her that is scarred-some part of her that is broken, and I can't fix it because I am 50 percent of the cause of that brokenness." She started NWNW to answer the questions her daughter would one day have. Among the 100 bloggers she networked are Jenee Darden, who urges her "sistas" to "stop settling for the sperm" and demand more. Leslie Jones McCloud, a NWNW blogger who describes herself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat, says it is "wrong and selfish thinking" to say your children don't need a father. Eric Payne wrote that he panicked when he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, but now he knows that "becoming a father isn't the end of life at all. It's a new beginning filled with opportunities."
Kay Hymowitz, author of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, believes the African-American out-of-wedlock birth rate is partly due to feminism and also to deep-seated relationship difficulties that date back to slavery. But it's hard to talk about, she said: "So many blacks today grew up without fathers in the house, are understandably grateful and sorry for their mothers, and don't want to be accused of living a lesser life."
That's how blogger Tracy Clayton, the daughter of a single mother, responded to NWNW: "It carries a message of shame. . . . My mom worked hard to raise me, so I do take it personally." Hymowitz was once optimistic when Bill Cosby started addressing out-of-wedlock black births and the black community still thronged to see him. "They wanted to hear it," she said. "It was very striking at the time. . . . There was something there." But now she sees the problem getting worse.
Some encouraging statistics lie beneath troubling ones. According to a Pew study, Americans-whether high-school-educated or college graduates-say they want to marry. Seven in 10 people said an increase in the number of single mothers is not good. The Brookings Institution's Fragile Families Survey found that most couples who give birth out of wedlock begin with hopeful relationships. Some 87 percent of the fathers and 72 percent of the mothers gave their relationship at least a 50/50 chance of leading to marriage. This is not likely to happen (by the time their children turned 5, only 35 percent of the couples were still together), but the statistics show that people still want marriage and stable relationships.
Youth council members believe that speaking out-addressing and admitting the problem-is the first step. That is what happens at the end of the council's film. Rosalita turns to Pastor Bill, who offers her the church's help, encourages her not to get an abortion, and tells her she can redeem her mistake by choosing not to have sex again until marriage. Rosalita gives her word.