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On the Benefits of Social Stigmas

REMOVING ROAD SIGNS CAN BE DANGEROUS

By David C. Stolinsky | December 1997
David C. Stolinsky, M.D., who is of the Jewish faith, lives in Los Angeles. He is semi-retired after 25 years of medical school teaching at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Southern California.

Not long ago, three young adults in Florida received long prison terms for removing stop signs from a road. Why such severity? The lack of road signs contributed to a fatal collision in which three teenagers died. There was much righteous anger at the irresponsible young adults. But something about the discussion struck me as hollow, even hypocritical. Is it farfetched to suggest that these thoughtless vandals on that road in Florida were only imitating us, their thoughtful elders?

For a generation now we have been busy removing crucial signs from the winding and dangerous road of life. Hoping to be nonjudgmental, wishing to increase freedom, believing even that we were being compassionate, we have almost systematically deprived the young and inexperienced of much of the benefit of our experience. Life holds as many sharp curves, steep grades, and hazardous intersections as ever, but we have conspired to render them unmarked.

For example, we removed most of the signs that warned teenagers of the dangers of premature sex and pregnancy. When I went to school in the 1950s, only one girl became pregnant in six years of junior and senior high. Pregnant girls had to leave school and go live with relatives or attend Continuation School, where returning dropouts went. There was stigma attached to unmarried pregnancy. This was hard on pregnant girls, but because of it there were far fewer of them.

There was little sex education then, but there also was little teenage pregnancy. Pregnancy rates rose as sex education increased, but this unhappy fact has not dampened our enthusiasm for sex education. Indeed, we are convinced that high teen pregnancy rates mean that even more sex education is needed.

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