New York City has recently seen some really awful ads directed at shaming teens into pregnancy prevention, ads which by and large (though not entirely) ignore the fact that, as I’ve mentioned before, pregnancy requires sperm, and in most cases, sperm is delivered via human male. The ensuing online conversation has reminded me of a piece I ran in the Chicago Tribune in September 2008 about these same issues, so I thought I’d post the piece here. You’ll note that my references to pop culture (and the 2008 Presidential campaign) are a tad dated now, but the problem itself is not.
From the fictional worlds of the movie “Juno” and the TV series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” to the reality-based worlds of celebrity and politics — with the odd, if phantom, working-class pregnancy “pact” thrown in for good measure — American society has suddenly noticed that kids occasionally become parents. Which, we surmise, must mean they have sex.
These are not facts with which American society has ever been particularly comfortable.
Typically, our response has been either: Woe-is-me-the-sky-is-falling! or What-a-bunch-of-stupid-sluts. Or both. (It goes without saying that the males involved are only rarely called to account. We know who Jamie Lynn is, but, pop quiz: Can you name the baby daddy?)
We’ve condemned girls and parents. We’ve compacted their struggles and imperfections into talking points or mean-spirited punch lines. We’ve read commentary suggesting that young girls are stupid enough to willfully follow in the fertile footsteps of fictional characters or wealthy actresses.
In the course of this “discourse,” teen sex and pregnancy are reduced to a series of bifurcated judgment calls. We demand that decision-makers and media oracles respond instantly to all of it, neither encouraging nor allowing time for reflection — and woe betide any who change their minds over time. No, we want an opinion, we want it in black-or-white, and we want it in stone.
As unambiguous as we might wish the subject were, though, the reality of teen sex and pregnancy won’t go away just because some want it to. It isn’t laughable. And it’s not really news.
The hormonal imperative to reproduce has been getting young Americans in trouble since before there was an America: As many as a third of colonial brides were pregnant at the time of the Revolution, according to several historical sources, and possibly more than a third of births were out of wedlock.
What has changed, though, is birth control. The modern day fairly bristles with it.
Among sexually active 15- to 19-year-olds, 83 percent of girls and 91 percent of boys report using contraception — possibly explaining the 34 percent drop in teen birth rates between 1991 and 2005, according to the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
Yet the recent reversal of that trend (teen births have since risen 3 percent) reminds us that we must never relax our efforts at education. Every single kid has to be given the necessary information and urged to be smart, even when hormones scream.
Getting pregnant young is a tough thing. Carrying a baby and raising the child is hard work; giving one up is, for many, even harder. And though I support reproductive choice, it can’t be argued that abortion is a cakewalk either. I know — and I was an adult when I had mine.
And abstinence programs just don’t work: A 2004 study by Yale and Columbia Universities found that fully 88 percent of those who pledge abstinence have premarital sex anyway.
So we’re left with birth control, and information. And kindness, and compassion.
Again, and again (and again), we’ve got to tell kids that unprotected sex makes babies, and babies change lives. If they make youthful mistakes anyway, we need to be there to help them make wise decisions and keep their lives whole.
This isn’t easy. Planned Parenthood reports that 73 percent of teenage moms come from poor or low-income families; the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports that some 80 percent of teen fathers don’t marry their children’s mothers — and that two-thirds of families started by single moms are poor.
We may not like these facts, but that’s what they are. Facts. And they don’t bode well for anyone: not the mothers, not the babies, not the country.
This is what we need to be talking about, not the moral fiber or relative philosophical consistency of this particular 16-year-old, or that political party. We need to be talking about, and dealing with, the facts.
Sadly, one of the people who recently had reason to face these facts publicly — Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin — has failed on this most basic front. She has expressed support for abstinence-only programs, and as Alaska’s governor, reduced funds for a program intended to house young mothers while they get the life skills they need to become successful adults.
Rather than focusing on the poor decisions or sheer bad luck of individual young women (famous or not), we need to give all teenagers all the tools they need to keep their lives on track; when the next girl falls pregnant anyway, we need to surround her with all the support — familial, societal, and governmental — she may need. Oh, and we should probably involve the fathers too.
Is teen pregnancy a good thing? No. But it happens, and every baby born should be given love and a good chance. Every single one. With a lot of dedication, it can work out.
Just look at Stanley Ann Dunham’s boy, Barry. He’s running for president.