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Why Do We Shame Teen Moms?

A response to teen pregnancy that shames young women ignores the fact that socioeconomic factors may have a bigger impact on their success as parents than does age.

Seventeen-year-old Gaby Rodriguez recently made national news when she revealed to her entire Toppenish High School that the baby bump she had been slowly developing over the last six months was actually a modified basketball with cloth and netting inside. Rodriguez, an enterprising Latina senior, told everyone she’d set out to do a social experiment. She lives in a town that is 75 percent Latino, making teen pregnancy an important issue for her community—half of Latinas nationally will become pregnant as teenagers (the same is true for black teens). 

But Rodriguez’s project wasn’t focused on trying to prevent teen pregnancy. Her presentation, entitled “Stereotypes, Rumors and Statistics,” was instead about highlighting the stigma she experienced as a high-achieving student who was thought to be pregnant. She told her classmates about how perceptions of her suddenly changed, generating comments like this one: “Her attitude is changing, and it might be because of the baby or she was always this annoying and I never realized it.”

Rodriguez isn’t alone in experiencing this stigma. Shows like MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” may make some think that teen pregnancy is becoming glamorized, but girls who actually live through the experience speak of much less supportive circumstances. Adriann Barboa, Executive Director of Young Women United, who gave birth to her first child at 18, had this to say on the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which fell on Wednesday of this week.

“I had heard dire predictions about teen pregnancy at school assemblies, seen billboards, and watched after-school specials that warned me of its perils. Girls who look like me were routinely warned against what would happen to us and to our kids if we became parents too soon. From low birth-weight babies to high drop-out rates, our kids were likely to be on the losing end of every childhood measure.”

Barboa is describing an ironic source of the stigma young moms face: the web of campaigns that have been created to prevent teen pregnancy. Teen pregnancy prevention initiatives are often based on the premise that teen parenting is an indisputably bad thing and should be avoided at all costs. And as a consequence, teen moms are constantly presented as failures and victims. “I love my life. I’m not gonna mess it up with a pregnancy,” says a teenager at the end of a video on the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy’s website,  

Prevention advocates point to the fact that teen parents have higher incidence of the range of problems public health works so hard to end. In a document targeting parents of teens, the National Campaign explains:

“Compared to women who delay childbearing, teen mothers are less likely to complete high school and more likely to end up on welfare. The children of teen mothers are at significantly increased risk of low birth-weight and prematurity, mental retardation, poverty, growing up without a father, welfare dependency, poor school performance, insufficient health care, inadequate parenting, and abuse and neglect.”

It’s a compelling formula—simply stop teen girls from having kids, and these disparities disappear. But the question that remains is what’s really behind these negative outcomes? Is young pregnancy and parenting the cause, or it a correlation with other risk factors, like socio-economic status and race, that recur at all ages? That’s what Verónica Bayetti Flores of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (with which I have worked) believes.

“That data can be picked apart pretty easily,” she says. “If you look at those negative outcomes in terms of socioeconomic indicators, I think you’d see similar trends. It’s trying to place the blame on something that is more a symptom than a cause.”

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