Shame on Shaming

by Alexander Sanger

The Bloomberg administration in New York recently launched a series of subway ads condemning teen pregnancy by trying to shame teen mothers into delaying childbirth.

One ad says, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.”

“This campaign makes very clear to young people that there’s a lot at stake when it comes to deciding to raise a child,” said Bloomberg in a statement:

… By focusing on responsibility and the importance of education, employment, and family in providing children with the emotional and financial support they need, we’ll let thousands of young New Yorkers know that waiting to [become] a parent could be the best decision they ever made.


The press release accompanying the ad campaign also states that “Decades of research show that children born to young, unmarried parents are more likely to be poor, have emotional and behavioral problems and are less likely to do well in school.”

The Bloomberg administration is using the received wisdom on teen pregnancy that early childbearing makes even more problematic the already difficult lives of poor, young people, delays their advancement out of poverty and harms their children. The received wisdom is, however, wrong.

Recent research suggests that poverty in the midst of income inequality, unstable family life, a poor environment, a poor educational system and job opportunities and limited life expectancy are the overriding factors harming young people and their children, not teenage childbearing.

The Bloomberg press release also states, correctly, that while “the city’s teen pregnancy rate fell 27 percent in the last decade, there are still more than 20,000 teen pregnancies annually, 87 percent of which are unintended…”

Teen pregnancy is not intractable, and progress has been made — but progress can be achieved without shaming the teens who do become pregnant. City-wide programs that provide sex education to young men and young women and contraceptive access for teens, including condoms that also protect young people from HIV infection, have been effective in reducing teen pregnancy.

Giving teens the information they need and the contraceptive methods that suit them is the key to eliminating the 87 percent of teen pregnancies that are “unintended.”

Researchers, if not politicians, are well aware that “intendedness” around pregnancy is a slippery concept. One researcher stated, “When one focuses on teen fertility, we would argue that it is not generally socially acceptable to report that you ‘wanted’ to get pregnant as a teenager, either at the time of conception, after pregnancy or after the child is born. So survey rates of ‘intendedness’ would be biased upward.”

A 2010 report on teen pregnancy in New York City schools states:

There is a growing body of literature suggesting that when teens live in poor communities with less advantage and opportunity and more disorganization, they are more likely to engage in sex at an earlier age and to become pregnant. This finding is supported by data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that indicated neighborhood context as a significant factor in differences in rates of sexual initiation, after controlling for family income, parental education, race/ethnicity, age, and family structure. Qualitative studies within financially depressed neighborhoods have linked teens’ decisions not to use contraception to feelings of hopelessness or perceived lack of personal opportunity for the future. This research is consistent with our finding of increased pregnancy risk within high need neighborhoods, after controlling for race/ethnicity.

More than 300,000 young women give birth every year in this country. What is the reproductive benefit they see? A teen, of any race or ethnicity, living in a an economically depressed neighborhood, who sees little possibility of advancement, may see her best opportunity to have a child and form a family as better done sooner rather than later. Sooner because her own life expectancy, and that of her parents who can may be in a position to help her raise a child, is shorter than more affluent teens; and sooner because her own health deteriorates more rapidly than more affluent teens, thereby making childbearing more fraught for the teen and her baby. Under these circumstances, to postpone childbearing is to risk forgoing having children at all.

But what about the effect on the babies? Do they end up markedly worse in life than if their mothers had delayed childbearing into her 20s?

There is no doubt that children of poor teen mothers do not fare well, but is this a result of being born to a teen or, rather, to being born to a poor girl in a poor neighborhood? In academic lingo, does correlation equal causation?

As I stated in my book, Beyond Choice, “…just because children of teen mothers may have poor results in school does not mean that these results were caused by these children being born to teen mothers. It may be caused by other factors such as their underlying poverty, differing patterns of maternal care or the poor schools themselves.”

Researchers Melissa Schettini Kearney and Philip B. Levine recently confirmed this and stated: “our reading of the most rigorous empirical studies today is that the data reject the hypothesis that the children of teenage mothers would have experienced better outcomes had those same mothers delayed pregnancy until after age 19.”

Shaming is not an answer to the issue of teen pregnancy. We need to give teens sexual education and access to contraceptives so that a decision to get pregnant and have a child can be a conscious one and not an accidental one. Shaming them for having children, who are born healthy, and who can be raised to adulthood in a family kin network, is cruel and wrong.


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