Jocelyn Elders raises valid health concerns

Friday, June 27, 2003

Dr. Jocelyn Elders was a headline-grabbing U.S. surgeon general during the Clinton administration -- so controversial, in fact, that she was asked to resign in 1994, mainly because of her outspoken views on sex among America's youngsters.

But Elders is still able to draw attention to many of the health problems she is passionately concerned about. She spoke last week to more than 100 health-care professionals and state employees at a conference in Cape Girardeau sponsored by Missouri Bootheel Healthy Start. As the agency's director observed, just having Elders at the conference was enough to get the attention of people who are on the front line every day dealing with such issues as teenage pregnancies and low-birth-weight babies.

In spite of her unorthodox views -- as surgeon general she advocated free condoms for youngsters and sexual experimentation -- Elders raises valid concerns.

While many residents of this area and across the nation favor sexual abstinence among the nation's youths, Elders recognizes that too many young boys and girls are engaging in sexual activity, resulting in pregnancy and high-risk births.

Low birth weight, for example, is a leading contributor to infant deaths, Elder said. One in 13 babies are born in Missouri with low birth weight, and the number increases to one in 10 in Southeast Missouri. "We've got to stop teenagers from having babies," Elders said.

She's right. Health-care professionals and social workers who deal daily with this problem might agree that teaching abstinence is important, but most of them also recognize the reality of sexual activity among teenagers.

Teen sex and high-risk births are legitimate health concerns. Getting the public's attention and involvement may well take someone like Elders, who speaks plainly about an issue too many of us prefer to ignore or hope someone else will deal with.

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