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Recent reports indicating that the rates of teen pregnancies across the United States have dropped precipitously over the last few years likely come as a surprise to countless people who might have thought that just the opposite was true. After all, it often feels that all of the news—or all of the discussions, at any rate—around teens center not on positive signs regarding health and behavior, but on dire tales of gun violence, depression, prescription pill abuse and so on.
In light of the recent (largely) good news about teen pregnancy rates in the U.S., LIFE.com looks back four decades, to a remarkable cover story in the April 2, 1971, issue of LIFE magazine titled, “Help for High School Mothers.” The article chronicled the day-to-day lives of teen moms and moms-to-be in the otherwise typical southern California town of Azusa:
A few weeks later, the letters to the editor published in LIFE in response to the story were mostly negative, along the lines of one from a reader in Manitou Springs, Colo., who wrote that “the April 2 cover sets some sort of new dimension of achievement in crass, lurid, inelegant journalistic bad taste. To proffer a picture of this pathetic schoolchild with her grotesque maternity figure over the bold type ‘High School Pregnancy’ simply makes a bad, sad scene.”
The vice-president of a senior high school class in Redondo Beach, Calif., on the other hand, applauded the teen pregnancy program at Citrus Hill, but went to note that he felt “that the LIFE story was done in the epitome of poor taste. The entire tone of the article was such that one would think the greatest way of getting through high school is by having babies.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.