Variable World of Personal Responsibility

OnCommonGround was given the exclusive right to excerpt this essay from the anthology, Rethinking Responsibility: Reflection on Sex and Accountability, published by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. For more OnCommonGround excerpts in this series click here.


With the possible exception of parents, no group issues more
exhortations to personal responsibility than we clergy. An estimate of
the effectiveness of those appeals was given by the social ethicist
Reinhold Niebuhr. While he loved to preach, he did not think that
people are changed by sermons. He believed that we are more influenced
by the moral atmosphere of the society around us.

considering the issue of personal responsibility, it seems wise to
recognize that much depends on the moral and social matrix in which
each individual tries to live. For example, if young people are raised
in families that are basically functional and caring, go on to higher
education, have fi nancial resources backing them, and have a real
future, then it is reasonable to expect them to take a great deal of
personal responsibility. If they do not wish to have children before
they are further along in their careers, they should be responsible by
using birth control. If, however, other young men and women have few if
any of these supports, are living lives with few opportunities and
little hope, then it is understandable, if sad, that they may not care
enough about themselves to exercise similar care. In such a situation,
demanding personal responsibility without the provision of social
supports may not be realistic. Even though such personal responsibility
would be in their own self-interest, young men and women may have
simply given up on themselves. These are the young people to whom life
just “happens.”

With this in mind, it seems clear that social policies can make
personal situations such as unintended pregnancies either better or
worse. Things might be somewhat improved if federal and state
governments spent more money on programs to make contraception more
affordable and available. While that and similar measures could be
helpful, they are only a part of what is needed. Research done by The
National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and other
groups has shown that the mere act of giving people contraception does
not automatically solve the problem. What matters more than that is
that they have realistic prospects for their life and career. When
those are present, people are far more likely to take responsibility
and avoid unintended pregnancies.

Providing such “realistic
prospects” is a tall order for any complex society, but these kinds of
programs have been successful before. The GI Bill of Rights put
millions of World War II veterans through college at a time when many,
if not most, of them would never have gone to college. Personal
responsibility alone could not have put those men and women in college.

The more our society is able to break the cycle of poor
schools, weakened families, and limited prospects, the more it will
strengthen their sense of personal responsibility and reduce unintended

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