By Emily Stimpson
"Do we really want students believing babies are inconvenient?"
That's the question Father Edward Quinlan, secretary of education for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., put to his principals and teachers in 2007. The reason for the question was "Baby Think It Over," a national teenage pregnancy prevention program then in use in several of Harrisburg's Catholic schools.
Launched more than a decade ago, "Baby Think It Over" is the 21st-century version of the infamous egg "babies" hauled around America's high schools in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, as then, students are tasked with spending several days providing round-the-clock care for their "babies." The goal is to give teens a taste of parenting and dissuade them from becoming parents too soon.
Unlike their grocery store counterparts, however, the "babies" used in "Baby Think It Over" are lifelike and life-sized dolls with computerized responses that mimic those of real babies. The dolls cry to be changed, fed and rocked, and they continue to cry until their demands are met (a key attached to the "parents" wrist must be inserted in a slot for the appropriate length of time).
According to the doll's manufacturer, Realityworks Inc., more than 40,000 of these dolls are in circulation in the United States, as well as Canada and Great Britain, and more than a million teens have played parent with them. The manufacturer also boasts that the dolls' ability to realistically mimic the demands of infants is what makes them such an effective tool in preventing teen pregnancy. By depriving their "parents" of sleep and requiring constant care, the dolls give teens substantive reasons not to get pregnant: Babies are hard work.
But that is exactly why the Diocese of Harrisburg took issue with the program.
"'Baby Think It Over' presents children as burdens to avoid, not persons to love," explained Jim Gontis, director of religious education for the Diocese of Harrisburg. "The dolls give none of the joy real babies give. They don't smile. They don't laugh. And even if they could, it's not a real person doing it, and that makes all the difference. The dolls teach students about the struggles of parenting, but not the rewards."
They also, added Father Quinlan, "are not the fruit of love between two parents. They're objects demanding our attention. That's the philosophical outlook of the abortion movement, and the mechanical dolls have the distinct potential to reinforce that position. That's one of the reasons Planned Parenthood is such an enthusiastic promoter of this program."
Concerned that "Baby Think It Over" was doing more harm than good -- promoting a contraceptive and abortive mentality rather then encouraging a Catholic understanding of sexuality, marriage and family -- the Harrisburg diocese officially banned the program in 2007.
If their concerns sound like a stretch, Cathy Ruse, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council says think again.
Citing the 2005 Alan Guttmacher Institute Study on the reasons why women have abortions (see related sidebar), Ruse explained: "The overwhelming majority of abortions are done because women don't feel 'ready' financially or emotionally, or because they want to avoid single motherhood or a disruption of their education or career plans. ... The reasons the 'Baby Think It Over Program' gives girls to dissuade them from becoming parents too soon sound like the reasons young women have abortions."
But not all Catholic dioceses share that opinion. For over 10 years, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has used "Baby Think It Over" in its chastity education efforts.
"We wanted to counter the romance of young people having babies in order to fill a need for something to love and something to love them back," said Scott Miller, coordinator for adolescent faith formation for the archdiocese.
"The program offers a shot of reality about the responsibilities of parenting," he said.
According to Miller, the response to the program has been uniformly positive, with the only complaints coming from the students.
"They complain that their backs hurt from carrying the baby and the car seat, and that they lose sleep when the babies wake up in the middle of the night. They discover how overwhelming parenting can be," he said.
Miller also added, however, that in Baltimore the program is not a stand-alone offering, but rather part of a comprehensive effort to teach students about love, human relationships and chastity.
"If you think of the Church's teachings in this area as a wonderful, six-course meal, 'Baby Think It Over' is just one course," he said. "By itself it's not enough.
"We've also been careful to not send mixed messages about the beauty of children," he added.
But is that possible? Can the dolls be used without communicating on some level that children are burdens?
Not according to Gontis.
"The dolls themselves tell teens that children are a burden," he explained. "And if those young people ever do find themselves expecting, they'll be less reticent to unload the burden."
Based upon her own experience with the program, Mary Pat Van Epps, director of the Diocese of Memphis' NFP Center, agrees.
"It makes the baby the enemy, something bad that no one should ever want to have," she said. "Of course, it's supposed to teach young people the responsibility required when one has a baby, but to me it was all about how bad babies are."
And, in fact, in promotional materials for the program, the doll's creator, Richard Jurmain, boasts that his invention was not designed to teach "values," but rather "sleeplessness."
"If you have a baby, you'll never sleep again -- that's the message this program is designed to send," said Tom Lang, the executive director of Pennsylvania's Alternatives to Abortion Program (www.realalternatives.org). "It's designed to make the negatives of pregnancy overwhelming."
Although Lang believes that the "Baby Think It Over" dolls could have value in parenting classes, where the goal is to teach child-care skills, he still cautions anyone considering the program or using the program to proceed with caution.
"You've got to be very careful with this one," he said.
Fear tactics and teen pregnancy prevention don't have to go hand in hand. Rather than teaching teens that children are undue burdens, Cathy Ruse, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, recommends a more positive approach --talking about the beauty of children in the context of God's plan for marriage.
To ensure that message comes across, Ruse recommends evaluating chastity education programs with these four questions. The answer to each should be an emphatic, "yes."
Does it emphasize the role of marriage and the shared responsibilitiesin afamily?
Does it emphasize God's plan for sex, marriage and family?
Does it address the concept ofaccepting children lovingly and with heroic generosity when an untimely pregnancy happens?
Does it emphasize that every child, no matter whatthe circumstances of his conception, is preciousand dearly loved by God and can be a source of great joy?
The reasons that contribute to women's decisions to have an abortion tend to correlate to the reasons not to get pregnant as preached by the Baby Think It Over program. Here is a list of the top reasons women cite for having an abortion.
25% - Not ready for a(nother)child/timing is wrong
24% - Can't afford a baby right now
19% - Have completed my childbearing/have other people depending on me
8% - Don't want to be a single mother/am having relationship problems
7% - Don't feel mature enough to raise a(nother)child/feel too young
4% - Would interfere with education or career plans
Source: Guttmacher Institute Report (2005) based on 2004 survey
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.