“Meet your great-granddaughter,” my daughter-in-law said, gesturing lackadaisically toward the plastic doll in the infant seat on the coffee table. My 15-year–old granddaughter stood nearby grinning sheepishly as she held her braceleted arm aloft. The bracelet must be swiped across a chip in the doll’s chest when it cries in order to prove that its needs have been tended to. “Talia” cries when she’s hungry, needs to be changed, or wants comforting. My granddaughter’s mothering skills are rated and points are docked for the high school class that puts its trust in this robot touted as a deterrent to teen pregnancy.
I had my doubts from the get-go.
I loved my dolls when I was a girl, wrapped our cat’s kittens in baby blankets, and pretended my brothers were my own. The Besty-Wetsy doll that was my favorite still lies in a cabinet, her soft arms and legs atrophied from age. Everyone in a Catholic community prior to birth control knew that babies were work. When I got pregnant as a 16-year-old, it wasn’t because I was ignorant of the care required of a baby. I got pregnant because I was naïve about the finer points of the actual mechanics of sex, and because no one talked about sex, or desire, or birth control.
In the 1960s in a town of 3000 Catholics where public schools did not exist, one’s expectations for honest and open discourse about sex were low. I think the bar should be higher now. A lot higher. Birth control is readily available. Tens of thousands of women my age have lost babies to adoption and sought to raise our own children in a more open environment. We have decades of data and experience to inform us on the subject of teen pregnancy.
As it turns out, my feelings about Talia the robot and the job she’s purportedly performing have been validated by a recent study, published in the medical journal, Lancet and subsequently reported just about everywhere. Newsweek, citing Lancet, reports, “Over 1,000 girls aged between 13 to 15 years old across 57 schools in Western Australia who took part in the scheme were two times more likely to get pregnant by the age of 20 than those who attended standard sex education classes, Australian scientists found.” The kicker: Teen pregnancy rates are even higher in the U.S. than in Australia.
The good news is that teen birth rates are dropping. The rate in the U.S. is at a record low. The Pew Research Center reports that the reason is “Less sex, use of more effective contraception and more information about pregnancy prevention….Furthermore, among never-married teens who have had sex, 79% of girls and 84% of boys used a contraceptive method the first time they had sex.” In my mind, this is the heart of the matter. Education. Contraception. Preparation. Honest talk instead of noise from a robot.