Preventing Teen Pregnancy: Three Words Most Likely to Make My Blood Boil
I hate, hate, hate that phrase. Nearly everywhere I go or look as a young adult sexuality educator anymore, I run into it incessantly.
Let me be clear: I don't hate doing all that we can, to help people of every age to avoid pregnancies or parenting they do not want or do not feel ready for. I'm so glad to do that, and it's a big part of my job at Scarleteen and elsewhere when I work as a sexuality and contraception educator and activist.
I don't hate doing what we can to help people who can become pregnant who want help to determine when the best possible time is for them to become pregnant and parent (for those people who want to do so at all), and to do what we can to be realistic about pregnancy and parenting when counseling those who are considering either or both. In addition, I'm totally in support of making sure young people know all their options with the whole of their lives; aren't choosing to become pregnant or parent at a time that's too soon for them to both discover and reach their own goals and dreams, or too soon for them to be able to learn and provide good care of themselves. All good stuff, all terribly important, and all things that many young people seek help with which we can provide.
I'm on board with parents of teens or twentysomethings who don't want to pay the costs for their teen's pregnancy or the child of their teen, or don't want a new infant in the house. I'm not down with any young person assuming that their parent should automatically be a co-parent, an instant babysitter, or will bankroll a pregnancy. Co-parenting with anyone is something to be discussed and negotiated, not assumed. When we're talking about consensual sex, if a young person has the maturity to have sex, to have sex which carries a risk of pregnancy, and to consider parenting themselves, I think it's reasonable and appropriate to also then require the maturity to discuss and negotiate any contributions they want from their own parents with pregnancy or parenting.
I certainly understand parents wanting their youth to be able to have a childhood and adolescence that is not fraught with more responsibility and stress than a young person is able to manage, or which is likely to cause them unhappiness: that's plain old love, and I don't see a thing wrong with that.
I understand wanting children in the world to have parents who are capable of parenting, and for those children to have their most basic needs met. I worked in early childhood education for years before moving on to run Scarleteen, and I continue to feel very strongly about quality care and parenting for children. I also came from two young, unprepared parents, so I know firsthand what some of the downsides and struggles can feel like to a child.
I'm also absolutely on the bus when it comes to all of us, doing all we can to make our soundest decisions around pregnancy and parenting, and the idea that we should all be held accountable when it comes to only choosing to parent if and when we think we can be parents who can provide what children need. It is in part because I am on board with that that I am 39 and childfree, despite being someone who has always liked kids a whole lot, to the degree that I've been teaching my whole adult life. Part of why I also work at an abortion clinic is because I strongly support the right of every pregnant person to decide if a given time is or is not right for them to remain pregnant, and to have the option to decide a given time is not right.
(For the record, I do not understand that "we shouldn't have to pay taxes that support other people's children," stuff. I have to pay taxes for all kinds of things I don't support or like, but I've never had a problem with the idea that some of my income goes to help and support the children of the world. It's one of the few things my taxes go to that I do feel good about. I have chosen not to reproduce myself, however, I'm of the mind that we all share some collective responsibility for caring for everyone else on our planet. So that one? I don't get or sympathize with.)
Here's what I'm not okay with.
What I hate about that phrase is the patronizing, disrespectful and ignorant presumption that all teen pregnancy is unwanted or unplanned: it isn't, and while young people may have less information about and access to contraception than older adults so may have more unplanned pregnancies than older adults (teens do have more unplanned pregnancies than older women, but the highest unplanned pregnancy rate right now is for those 18-24, economics can be as much a determinant as age is, and close to 50% of pregnancies for people of all ages are unplanned), that part certainly isn't their fault or doing. Ask a young person what they want in sex education or contraception access, and you'll find it does not resemble what we, the adults who have withheld power from them in these policies, have usually provided.
I hate the shaming or demonization of teen parents or teens who become or are pregnant, the widespread assumption that all of that is always bad or always wrong, and must always be prevented based on anyone's standards but those of young people themselves. I hate teen pregnancy being presented as if it were a pandemic, and teen parents presented as automatically incapable of parenting just as well as anyone else. I hate the often-dishonest moralizing that often goes with all of this, and teens being told that all sex = pregnancy and that the only way to prevent pregnancy is to avoid all kinds of sex, and/or that choosing to be sexually active means choosing to be pregnant. I hate the other words so often used around this topic, which make teen pregnancy sound like Hurricane Katrina. I hate the defeatist messages we give teens or young women who have become pregnant and who are deciding to parent. I hate that we seem to hold teen or young mothers to higher standards of parenting than we hold older parents.
I hate that our culture has no problem recruiting young people into the military before the age of majority (for enlistment at 18, but the efforts start before then, contracts are often signed before then), suggesting that they have the capacity to make that kind of potentially life-altering decision, one that can often involve choices around life and death, and yet suggests they have no capacity to make this one. I hate that in many states and areas young people can be legally married at 16 or younger, and even though for the youngest teens, that often requires parental consent or a pregnancy, I hate that it's thought by so many that marriage at the age of 16 somehow makes young parenting easier, better or more socially acceptable, or that for a 16-year-old woman, a legally binding marriage contract is somehow less of a big deal, less of a limitation on her life, than a social contract to care for a child. I hate that there are states and areas which don't allow a young pregnant person the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy of their own volition, and some which don't allow them access to contraception, and yet in some areas -- especially when we are talking about nonconsensual sex -- remaining pregnant is the only option we allow young people to have within their own control.
I hate the presumption that it is anyone's place BUT the teen in question to actually prevent a teen pregnancy. Can it be our place to help those who want help in that aim? Absolutely, and I hope that when and if any of us are asked for that help, we'll provide it. But it's not our place to do the preventing, because it ain't our body or our life. It's theirs.
Perhaps even more than that, I hate some of the attitude that seems to inform that presumption, which feels to me a whole lot like older people saying that it is okay for older women to become pregnant, but not for younger women. Which is a pretty odd thing to say about women who both have actively working reproductive systems, who both have the ability to become pregnant and to parent, or to make other reproductive choices. In fact, it sounds a whole lot like eugenics to me.
I'm not going to beat around the bush (as it were) here. In a whole lot of ways, women in their late teens and early twenties are in a better position than women in their thirties or forties are to reproduce, whether anyone likes it or not. They are more fertile, their bodies will bounce back more quickly from a pregnancy, and they have more energy both for pregnancy and for keeping up with small children. A 19-year-old woman and a 39-year-old woman, on average are not in the same space physiologically when it comes to bearing children. The younger woman is in the better, healthier position physically, and the same is likely so for her fetus, particularly if (and that's a big if) she has healthcare of the same quality the older woman has. And for most of human history -- though there are certainly aspects of this, such as gender inequality and sexual violence, very worthy of critique and change -- teen or young adult mothers have been who so many of our mothers were.
There is another side of that coin, which is that young women are without some things many older women have. They more frequently will have less financial resources to care for children, their partnerships (if they are co-parenting) can tend to be less stable or shorter-lived, and they have less access to things like day care at school or work, good transportation, health insurance and the like. Obviously, too, a younger person has often had less life experience, and an older person may have greater perspective in certain areas which can be of great benefit when it comes to good parenting. But there are corrections for those inequalities. So many of the troubling statistics that we have on teen pregnancy and parenting aren't around the pregnancy or parenting itself, or the age of a parent, but instead, arise from many inequalities young people suffer because we have set things up so that they do.
For instance, it's not likely because someone is 16 when they become pregnant that they will be less able to finish high school, but because so many opportunities for schooling are cut off to young, pregnant women, and so few concessions are made to help a pregnant or parenting teen finish high school or enter college. Given the higher teen pregnancy statistics when it comes to young women of color, immigrant women and rural women, the fact that our culture often doesn't privilege education for those groups in the first place is no minor detail. It's not likely because someone is a teen that their child can be more likely to wind up in the corrections system, but because someone is a parent of any age who is without the resources they need to actively parent. Older people can help younger parents by sharing life experience and perspective gleaned with them rather than hoarding it or lording it over them.
Given that we know that that lack of resources is a central issue, why do we see so much money and so much effort put into "preventing teen pregnancy" yet so relatively little put into efforts to get free or affordable daycare into high schools and colleges, providing counseling, schooling and housing for young parents? Why do we hear so much about preventing teen pregnancy yet meet so much resistance when it comes to contraceptive and abortion access for teens and young adults? Why does the left and right alike tend to have so much to say and offer before or while a teen is pregnant, yet so little post-pregnancy or when a teen has become a parent?
Why is so much money put into developing and doing fertility therapies for women moving outside of their reproductive years, and so little for supporting women at the dawn of them; women of an age where even the best contraceptive methods, used perfectly, fail most often? Why are the celebrity teens or those of fame and wealth "speaking out against teen pregnancy" so often the loudest voices we hear? Why are the representatives of teen pregnancy and parenting so often so non-representative? Knowing about the disparities between white women and women of color with teen pregnancy, those between women in poverty and those who are affluent, and about the achievement limitations teens who choose to become parents so often feel they have, what the heck is up with the vast majority of those representing teen pregnancy being so wealthy, white and pampered (or male!?!) all the time?
Knowing that for some teens who do choose to become pregnant, or risk pregnancy needlessly, it can come out of loneliness, the desire to cement a relationship, low self-esteem or the feeling that they have little opportunity for a breadth of life achievement, why do we shame them, blame them and put them down so often, further isolating those already isolated and low-feeling teens even more? (At the same time, it's important to recognize these are also often motivations or feelings of older women with pregnancy or parenting, too. They do not only belong to teens.)
For the many older men involved in these prevention initiatives, given the rate of sexual violence and coercion involved in so many teen pregnancies, given how often young men don't cooperate with sound contraception, and given the fact that no cisgender man has any experience with being pregnant himself, why are their efforts not put on talking to young men about sexual violence, sound sexual decision-making of their own and contraceptive cooperation rather than in moralizing at young women? And yes, I'm talking to guys like you, Neil Cole.
(FYI, I don't think Cole's commercial or ad should be suppressed. However, I'd like to bring your attention to who the infant is given to in the ad, and who is the one really being talked to, who the big issue is left with while the male partner is taken out of the car and out of the issue. Check out the ad: the only thing directed at young men is about marriage. Cole's language around teen pregnancy with the Candie's campaign, and who so much of it is aimed at is seriously not okay in my book, particularly as a male person. While he seems to put so much of this on young women, he also doesn't seem to recognize what actually does belong only to young women: "kids" don't have babies, women do. Yet, all of the negative outcomes of teen pregnancy are apparently, based on his language, only about women.)
I'm also not entirely certain that there isn't, possibly, for some, some measure of envy at play here. It's tough to talk about, especially as a feminist, but I have had enough friends trying to reproduce at later ages now to know how incredibly frustrating the process can be for them. I also have friends honest enough with themselves and others that they will share that they do feel jealousy and anger when they see other women able to become pregnant as easily as breathing, and that's often the case with the youngest women. Some older women -- not all or even most, but some -- struggling to get pregnant now may even feel resentment about all the strong social messages they got about childbearing that they had to wait for later, should wait for later. If and when those feelings exist, they are valid and real, but don't have a place, covertly or overtly, in the discourse around teen pregnancy.
When older people and/or those of means are those creating the movements to "prevent teen pregnancy," -- and that is overwhelmingly who is -- the onus is us to evaluate and keep in check any bias we may have, and to be very sure those are not influencing how we treat teen pregnancy, planned or unplanned, wanted or unwanted. And that's what I think hasn't been done very well: that's what I see when I see phrases like "preventing teen pregnancy." I see a whole lot of bias, a whole lot of carelessness and a whole lot of disrespect.
Time to check-in
So, are we all checking in to be sure that older people aren't trying to claim some sort of ownership over pregnancy and parenting and who has the "right" to parent; who can and cannot be a good parent based on age alone -- and nothing else -- something we know has little basis in reality? Are we sure that some of the messages we're sending aren't about our own frustration or resentment; aren't coming from a place where we might feel like young mothers now are taking liberties we wish we would have? As well, are we sure that for those of us who felt that our lives went best because we did not procreate or do so at a given age aren't projecting our own goals and desires unto a generation which may be radically different than ours? Might we even be projecting some of what we saw and heard -- and disliked -- from our mothers generations unto this one?
Ageism is alive and well and teens are a very common -- and often thought to be acceptable -- target for it. We, as adults, make lousy policies for or around teens without allowing them input or control, and then we point the finger at teens when those policies we made or supported fail them, such as the poor sexuality education we've given them (especially in the last ten years here stateside), the awful relationship modeling, the glamorization, romanticism and commercialization of things like motherhood, vaginal intercourse, marriage and being sexually "attractive." The only real power we give them of late is in the commercial marketplace, and then adults whine about how youth are fixated on money and acquisition. Uh, okay.
Their sexual and reproductive lives are two of the areas where ageism is exercised constantly, and often without any resistance from even progressive adults. Are we sure that ageism and classism (not to mention racism and sexism) aren't playing a part in our discourse around teen and young adult pregnancy?
Are we also sure, that as can happen, that older people are not harboring a desire for their children do do as well as them, but not to surpass them? In other words, what if -- just what if -- a young teen mother really could "have it all?" What if she could be a good parent AND finish high school, finish college, have the career she wanted, have all she envisions her life to be? By all means, that scenario might feel mighty frustrating for generations before who did not have the cultural or interpersonal supports or resources to achieve all of that, but not if we can see making things better for the generations that follow us as one of our great successes, not as something we were robbed of or must grudgingly provide.
It stands to mention that some of this approach likely comes out of attitudes that are not just about young people or young women, but about pregnancy and pregnant people, period. We have long had a cultural problem with women's bodies and reproductive systems being treated like collective property; with laws, policies, practices and initiatives around pregnancy being led by everyone but those who actually are or will be pregnant. To some degree, the way we have been treating teen pregnancy is highly indicative of those attitudes, which isn't all that surprising.
But if we're serious about being pro-choice, if we're serious about wanting to help others make decisions in real alignment with respect and self-respect, the most basic foundation we have to hold is that every woman has the inarguable right to make choices about her own body for anything that happens to or inside of her own body, and that no one but that woman is most qualified to do so. Once we start talking about preventing a given choice someone else may make, we take that person's ownership of their choice away.
When our bodies are of an age where they can reproduce, any of us then -- be we 16 or 36 -- has the right to choose to do that with our bodies if we want to. By all means, once a child is born, we're talking about someone else, someone outside of a woman's body, and not our own body. That's a huge and tangled discussion of its own, especially given the way children are so often framed as the property of their parents, rather than as the responsibility of parents and all the rest of us. But until there is an actual child born and independently present? We are talking about a woman and her own body. Not ours, hers.
For the record, I also have a problem with the notion of "preventing unplanned pregnancy." A LOT of wanted children, children who are loved, children who are parented well, come from unplanned pregnancies: at least half of us have. As a sexuality educator who knows very well how many people don't understand how reproduction works, and as someone who has a good handle on human history per how long most people didn't know, it's safe to say MOST pregnancies throughout history have been unplanned to at least some degree. Even now when we do know more, when far more people are educated, when we have many contraceptive methods which are highly effective, a lot of people approach pregnancy not as something they exactly plan, but leave themselves more or less open to at given times depending on how okay they are with pregnancy. For sure, we do want to fill people in on the things which might make a pregnancy more or less healthy when it happens, make parenting go better or worse for everyone involved, but while planning can certainly contribute to healthy pregnancy and sound parenting, it really isn't a requirement or a reality for many people.
This really isn't all that complicated. Words matter. The phraseology we use for things matters, especially when we're talking about subjects like this. Especially when we are talking about choices which are not ours to make, about the lives of others and the bodies of others. Especially when we are talking about something as nuanced, complex and wildly individual as pregnancy and parenting. Especially when we are coming to something and saying that it is about quality of life and respect.
May I suggest some easy lingusitic corrections?
If your heart is in the right place, what you want to do is to not to prevent anything. Rather, you want to nurture and support conscious conception and contraception, conscious birthing; to enable wanted and healthy pregnancy, wanted and healthy parenting. You want to help support all of us in having exactly the reproductive life we want and feel is best for us to the degree that we can control that.
If you're still stuck on prevention as an approach, why not try making it about helping teens to prevent unwanted pregnancy or unwanted parenting?
Is age really even relevant? Only so much. An unwanted pregnancy has the capacity to disrupt or cause hardship in a woman's life whether she is 17 or 37. A parent who is unprepared for parenting, who doesn't want to parent, or who just can't parent can do damage to a child no matter how old they are or are not.
What you really want to do -- I hope -- is to help women of all ages to understand what all their possible choices are for their whole lives, to have a good idea of what making any given choice can entail, the possible positives and negatives alike, and how it could impact them and others. What you probably really want to do is to help young people, all people, make choices around sex, pregnancy and parenting which are most likely to result in a happy, healthy life, and the life any given person most wants for themselves and those in their lives. What you also probably want to do is work just as much towards creating a culture of support for those who do become pregnant -- by choice or by accident -- and choose to parent as you work to support those making different choices. And if you really want to help to prevent unwanted teen pregnancy, you need to make sure your efforts are directed just as much towards young men as they are towards young women.
I know for a fact that many of the people who use the current language around teen pregnancy are people whose intentions are stellar, totally laudable, and all about the good things I'm talking about here. So, why diminish or mislead those great intentions with words and phrases that undermine them and disrespect the population we're claiming to care so much about? Why use the negative when you're trying to support the positive?
P.S. This rant is dedicated to my friend and volunteer Alice, and all of the other teen and young mothers who get as validly angry about this stuff as she does.