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Secret births and dead babies focus US horror on teenagers

In Tennessee this week Vice-President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, have been welcoming worthies from across the United States for a "family reunion" forum on the state of the American family. With four children, the eldest soon to marry, the beaming Gores offer the very picture of wholesome family values.

The American public, however, could hardly be less interested. It has been shocked by a spate of cases that show family life in late Nineties US as though through a distorting mirror. The most shocking and most riveting of these cases is known as the "prom murder". In Aberdeen, New Jersey, an 18-year-old school-leaver, Melissa Drexler, has allegedly confessed to giving birth in a toilet during her school-leaving dance - the high- school "prom" - and returning to the dance-floor as though nothing had happened.

Reports say she placed the baby in a plastic bag in the waste-bin, went back to her boyfriend, ordered a song from the disc jockey and ate a salad. The child was later found dead by a cleaner. A post-mortem examination showed that the baby was born alive and Ms Drexler, who appears to come from the sort of family America can be proud of, is charged with murder. She is free on bail, on a surety of $50,000 (pounds 31,250), held against her parents' house and is pleading not guilty.

Each day, new revelations emerge that make the case at once more banal and more horrific. There was blood on the floor and walls of the cubicle, but Ms Drexler was farsighted enough to take off her dress to keep it clean. A girl who was also in the toilets heard strange noises and the scraping of metal: the umbilical cord, it is now said, was probably cut with the serrated edge of the toilet-paper dispenser.

While Ms Drexler's case seems extreme, she is by no means the only school- leaver to find herself in trouble. Also in New Jersey, 18-year-old Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, 19, have been charged with murder after she allegedly gave birth in a motel room in Delaware and left the child, dead, in a dustbin.

Another 18-year-old is said to have given birth in her parents' garage, and attracted attention only when she collapsed afterwards from bleeding and a neighbour found the abandoned child wrapped in a quilt.

These cases may not be a large proportion of the 40 or so infanticides reported each year in the US. But they have shocked because they do not involve black teenagers from ghettos, but "respectable" white girls living in ostensibly stable families in decent areas. What is more, all the girls managed to conceal their pregnancy.

Now, the shock and the incredulity - how could she conceal her pregnancy, how could she kill her baby? - are being overtaken by soul-searching: why did she do it? Some experts have said successful concealment reflects the girl's absolute refusal to believe she can possibly be pregnant. Others have ventured the view that the very diktat of "family values" US-style may have contributed.

What sort of families do we have, asked one, where daughters are so frightened of their parents that they would rather commit infanticide than say they are pregnant?

The three cases that have come to light in the past two weeks are exceptions. But it is also true that the teenage pregnancy rate in the US is comparatively high on an international scale, and the government has been trying to do something about it.

Efforts are directed primarily at black inner-city teenagers, whose pregnancy rate is more than three times that of white teenagers, and in some places action has included cuts in benefit for mothers who conceive children while on welfare. These measures have been accompanied by a propaganda blitz in schools and health centres against teenage pregnancy.

Often, this propaganda stops with the exhortation, "Just say no!" from the influential chastity movement. In a country where chemists occasionally refuse to dispense prescriptions for the Pill, information on birth control and abortion, where available, is often accompanied by moral censure.

The pressure is on "nice" girls to conform. To some, the "prom murder' case shows the extremes to which that pressure may lead. To many others, Melissa Drexler's case is a morality tale on the wages of sin. As one neighbour was quoted as saying: "My heart goes out to her parents, but not to her."