Jamille Fields, Resident Blogger (Law Students for Reproductive Justice Fellow at the National Health Law Program)
May is Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month–a month that Gloria Malone, a young mother, described as “the month of getting it wrong.” Malone was referring to the problematic teen pregnancy prevention campaigns that are displayed throughout the year, but are really touted during May.
Such campaigns include a Milwaukee campaign launched earlier this year that includes young parents as huge toys, such as a jack-in the box, puppet, or pull toy, with the message “Have a Baby too Young and it will Control Your Life.” In 2013, the Candies Foundation launched and continued an ad campaign, complete with celebrity endorsements (all women from what I can tell), with such messages as “You’re supposed to be changing the world, not changing diapers.” With taxpayer funding that same year, New York City launched an even more offensive campaign. One of the campaign ads featured a black toddler with the words “Honestly, Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and another that read “Got a job? I cost thousands.”
These campaigns are problematic on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. The Milwaukee campaign conveys to young parents a message of hopelessness. The Candies Foundation continues to place all responsibility for reproductive decision-making on young women, excluding men from any role in the matter. The New York City campaign ads, which featured mostly people of color, suggests that it is these communities that need to have their reproductive activities monitored and contained. Also, the message that the child will somehow be lost if Daddy doesn’t stay in a relationship with Mommy is insulting to all of the single parents who have raised and continue to raise healthy and happy children. Further, intertwined throughout many of these campaigns and others is the message that poverty is solely attributed to a person’s decision to have children. In addition to shaming teen mothers generally, the overall problem presented is that she is poor—and it is poor people of color who should not have children.
There are public health benefits of individuals of all ages having the resources and ability to plan births. According to the Guttmacher Institute, unplanned pregnancy is associated with delayed prenatal care, premature birth, and adverse physical and mental health effects for children. Eighty-two percent of teen births are unplanned. But, it is worth noting that teens are not alone in unplanned pregnancies given that around 50% of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.
There are equally important public health concerns created from the societal shaming of young adults, particularly, mothers to whom the stigma is usually attached. Such shaming, often makes young parents feel isolated and prevents them from seeking the assistance these young people and their children need.
It is important to empower – not shame – all young adults to take charge of their reproductive decision-making. This can be done by providing teens with evidence-based and comprehensive sexuality education in schools and creating a space for one-on-one discussions about sexual health in medical providers’ offices. Teens should be made aware that their health insurance plan may have to cover contraceptives with no out of pocket cost to them, even if they are a dependent on their parents plan. Further, any discussions around sexual health and pregnancy prevention should be addressed to young men, just as equally as it does to women. This education should include LGBT youth who are often overlooked in these discussions with the assumption that they will not get pregnant. A recent study of New York City high school published in the American Journal of Public Health found that among sexually active teens, those who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were almost twice as likely to report becoming pregnant or getting someone else pregnant.
Malone (mentioned above) is one of seven mothers spearheading the #NoTeenShame Campaign, which is designed to push back against Teen Pregnancy Prevention campaigns that are based on shame, and to offer messages of support and hope for young parents. There should be more campaigns like this. Instead of shame, we could equip adolescents with the education and resources they need to make decisions about their sexual health. Further, we can offer already parenting teens support that their life will go on; they can lead healthy and productive lives; and they can be good parents.