Do we want to prevent teen pregnancies? Or shame teen mothers?

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.


teen pregnancy adsAMERICA is awash with the news that, wait for it: Teenagers get pregnant.

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.


  1. Neocortex

     /  March 9, 2013

    I don’t see anything here that I exactly disagree with, and yet something feels missing that I’m having trouble putting my finger on (and that perhaps is there but I’m failing to recognize it).

    Isn’t your deferral to the grim statistics here exactly what the awful NYC campaign purports to be doing? You even use one of the same statistics.

    I know that you support things like comprehensive sex ed that’s not just based around fear, and you correctly describe ways in which society should support teen parents. But in addition to providing social services for teen parents, why don’t we challenge the structures that make outcomes disproportionately bad for teen parents and their kids, the structures behind the statistics?

    I mean, why are so many single-mom-headed families poor? Is it because single moms are disproportionately likely to have already been poor and class mobility in this country has fallen apart? Is it because women still get paid less, and tracked out of higher-paying fields? Wouldn’t we rather address that than push teen fathers to marry teen mothers (I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of shotgun marriages). Why are low-income teens so much more likely to have babies? Is it bad sex ed? Is it a consequence of terrible social mobility and deliberate policy choices to concentrate poverty, leaving teens in the projects feeling like taking care of a baby is the only happy and productive role available to them in a society where there are few options open? How does mass incarceration, which directly affects young men of color disproportionately, affect the family structure of teen parents? To what extent does it create single-mom-headed-families in communities that are already marginalized and often poor? How much would empowering low-end workers in general – creating the conditions for them to have higher wages, better benefits, better working conditions, and more autonomy – help here, since teen parents are more likely to end up in low-end jobs?

    Without challenging the structures, the system, we can give useful and needed social services to teen parents and that’s a very good thing, but we’re still rendering them and their children charity cases who depend on the benevolence of mainstream society in order to get by. Why should it be so hard for anyone to get by? What about agency and empowerment? You do get into this a bit when you talk about the life skills program that Palin cut funding for, which I appreciate.

    You’ve talked about some of these issues before. I know you care about them. But their not being quite as present in this particular discussion seems like an omission. Am I even making sense here? I’m having trouble articulating what’s in my head.

    • This is precisely where we get into the limits of form.

      This was as 750-word op/ed piece for a general interest (newspaper-reading) public. I had to set up the issue (teen pregnancy as a constant), then take a path away from two pieces of simplistic conventional wisdom (“teen pregnancy is bad” + “bad things are easily prevented if individual people do simple things”), and from there present and expand on ideas that aren’t widely known and opinions that aren’t widely held (1. there were no golden-olden days; 2. kids who do get pregnant don’t need condemnation, they need support; 3. the thing that will help the most is that very thing to which people are trying to limit access; & 4. oh, by the way, boys are involved in this story, too) all in the hope of moving the conversation an inch. In doing all of that, I was, in fact, challenging assumptions, and structures, and the system – if we posit a general-interest audience made up mostly of people who aren’t you and me.

      Which is not to say that you don’t have a point (or several points), but what you’re describing is not a newspaper op/ed or a single blog post, and it presumes a different audience than that which reads general interest resources.

      ETA Also: You may have noticed that I often assume a readership that is less-activist and less-informed than me and you and people like us, because most people are, and I find that the writing on blogs that assumes that we all share the same knowledge base to be off-putting and often not as helpful as it could be. If anyone is getting their entire knowledge base about any one issue from a single op/ed or blog post, they’re in trouble, but I have to at least give them something to hang onto so that they don’t feel lost and may, ultimately, decide to learn more.

      • Neocortex

         /  March 11, 2013

        Yeah, message calibration for the audience is a tough line to walk. I appreciate your reply here.

        I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately thinking about whether it’s possible to deliver what for lack of a better term I will call radical critique, to audiences that are decidedly not, and have it work and be accessible rather than put people off. I think it’s possible, but it might only be possible sometimes, and it’s really hard, and with the constraints presented by the op-ed form it gets harder. I’ve thought about starting my own blog, since I clearly don’t have enough demands on my time, and I suspect I would run into this problem a lot.

  2. Neocortex

     /  March 9, 2013

    Oh, and of course Bloomberg thinks this campaign is great. I really cannot stand that man, and doing hurricane relief in NYC killed whatever tiny traces of regard I might have still had for him. I hope that the one silver lining in his lousy handling of Hurricane Sandy will be that NYC will finally elect someone less terrible.

  3. We need to STOP shaming all teen mothers and all single mothers. They didn’t get that way alone. If anyone needs shaming and good kick up the backside – it’s the fathers who got these girls and women pregnant and fail to fully fulfil the responsibilities of fatherhood. I’m so glad someone else cares about stop shaming and blaming.

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