CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Teen-age pregnancy, single motherhood and abortions are declining in most of America -- but Southern West Virginia's impoverished coalfields are especially cursed by this social blight.
In McDowell County, 96 of every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 had babies in 2010. That's three times the national average of 34. Mingo County was nearly as bad, with 79 per 1,000.
Many of the young mothers must live on welfare, without completing education, and their children are likely to suffer delinquency, school failure and other ills. Their future is dim. Studies say this problem costs West Virginia taxpayers $67 million per year.
Nearly 80 percent of children born to single teen moms live in poverty, a Dawn Miller column reported. It added: "Children born to teens are more likely to be underweight. They are more likely to die within the first year of life. They are less likely to have the emotional and intellectual stimulation that . . . prepares them for school and success later on."
Researchers blame the sad teen pregnancy rate on a sense of futility that pervades regions after the fading coal industry departs, leaving little opportunity in its wake.
If West Virginia provided adequate sex education and free contraception, some of the girls could be saved. They could continue education and find good careers -- even if they had to leave their home counties to work.
West Virginia has a good sex education law, but it's ignored in some rural schools. Former international network TV newsman Ed Rabel, now retired in Lincoln County, blames the lapse on local taboos.
"For years, Lincoln County preachers, and they are legion, have been sermonizing that abstinence is the only method," Rabel wrote in a Gazette commentary. "But statistics prove the preachers to be woefully wrong. What is more, although the state mandates sex education in schools, many educators in Lincoln County refuse to touch the subject out of fear of reprisals from parents steeped in a religiosity that forbids modernity."
President Obama's breakthrough 2010 health-care reform requires all medical insurance plans to provide birth control at no cost to women and girls. Some Catholic Church leaders are fighting parts of this mandate in court. We hope they lose.
As benefits of Obamacare spread through America, free birth control might reach West Virginia's mined-out poverty zones and save more teen-age girls from unwanted pregnancies that hobble their chances for rewarding lives.