A Mom Before the Prom

Now that the national attention on Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is fading (for the time being) it seems the only discussion it inspired was about John McCain’s vetting process and, by extension, his decision-making abilities. But there is another far more important subject raised by the 17-year-old’s pregnancy. For decades, teen pregnancy has been viewed as a problem, a danger to the children of young mothers and a hurdle to the success of the adolescent mothers.

But recent public displays of contraceptive failure by girls of visibility and means gives the misleading appearance that teen motherhood might be a lifestyle upgrade. Clearly one of the exacerbating factors is that someone like Bristol Palin is part of what feels like a growing trend: the normalizing of teen pregnancy and teen motherhood in the United States. Bristol is not alone in suggesting that to be a 17-year-old mother is not only acceptable, but exciting. Last year Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s then 16-year-old sister, had her baby. (The Spears family, it’s worth noting, were proponents of abstinence-only too.) Last year also featured the movie Juno, in which star Ellen Page played a 16-year-old whose quick-wit and sarcasm made her unwanted pregnancy seem as challenging as a bad case of acne. The attention garnered by each of these girls stripped away layers of what had for years been cautions against this very fate.
VIDEO: Comprehensive Sex Ed vs. Abstinence-OnlyVIDEO: Comprehensive Sex Ed vs. Abstinence-Only

None of these occasions has prompted examination of the risks and damage caused by teen pregnancy and teen motherhood. And, it should be noted, recent data show that the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S., which is already the highest in the developed world, is on the rise. The last year witnessed a dramatic 3 percent spike in the number of pubescent parents.

Of course, Bristol, Juno and Jamie Lynn don’t exemplify the average American girl confronting unintended pregnancy. And the problem is the average American teen doesn’t really know that. The choice the fictional character Juno made, adoption, is almost a fiction these days too. Approximately 1 percent of pregnant teens opt to give a child up for adoption. And then Jamie Lynn Spears is a teen millionaire. Her pregnancy only enhanced her fortune. The first photos of her baby fetched a million dollars. The spotlight on Bristol Palin offers false comfort too. Bristol has resources available to her that none of her pregnant teen counterparts does — like the secret service, the ultimate nanny.

The average teen girl would be led to believe that teen pregnancy doesn’t ruin adolescence, but instead brings lavish amounts of attention, an adoring and adorable teen father, and an endless supply of parental support. The reality for most teen moms could not be more different. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, eight in 10 teen fathers do not marry the mother of their first child. Kids without involved fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, twice as likely to end up in jail, and two to three times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems. Children who live apart from their fathers are also five times more likely to be poor than children with both parents at home.

Teen mothers, typically left to go it alone, are less likely to complete the education necessary to qualify for a well-paying job — in fact, parenthood is the leading cause of school drop out among teen girls. College then becomes the remotest of possibilities. Less than two percent of mothers who have children before age 18 complete college by the age of 30.

Too often heartbreaking sacrifices are also foisted on the child of a teenage mom. The children of teen mothers are more likely to be born prematurely at low birthweight compared to children of older mothers, which raises the probability of infant death and disease, mental retardation, and mental illness. Children of teen mothers are 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade and are less likely to complete high school. The children of teen parents also suffer higher rates of abuse and neglect (two times higher).

Teen girls and their children are not the only ones paying dearly. Teen childbearing in the United States costs taxpayers (federal, state, and local) approximately $9.1 billion each year. Most of the costs are associated with services to address the negative consequences detailed above.

The issue of teen pregnancy needs to be taken seriously and there’s no better time than an election year to demand that.

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  • invalid-0

    I would be remiss if I didn’t add my two cents into this post. I am probably an uncommon type of woman one that has had an abortion (in my 20s) and given up twins for adoption when I was a teen (maybe it is more common who knows). Anyway, I know most would blast me for saying this and I don’t care, but when I was a teen the pregnancy was so hard on me as was the birth that I wish I would have had other options but being in the family I was and situation I was hard pressed. It’s a long story but to sum it up my family was strict Catholic prolifers and I was a child of the abstinence only movement. Like I said I didn’t have a world of options open to me. I also lived in the South very rural south where going to get an abortion even if my parents supported it would have been almost impossible with our money and car situation. That’s why I fight now for teens and other women cause I don’t want anyone to feel well stuck. And Cristina you are right that it also hurts the children born to teen mothers as my son and daughter were born early. I can’t talk about this too easily but you all here at RH say we need to talk about it. That’s why I do now.

  • invalid-0

    Also I did have to drop out of high school due to the stress of the pregnancy on my body. I know that teens are going to make their own sexual decisions but we need to teach comp sex ed so like my husband and I say they can make those decisions safely. Oh keep up the good work RH and Amanda for those wonderful videos!

  • emily-douglas

    Liz, thank you so much for sharing your story. You have been an articulate and thoughtful commenter on so many stories, so many issues — you could easily have kept your comments at an arm’s length from your personal experiences. Thank you for reminding us that in all our advocacy and work on reproductive health, we must keep foremost in our lives the stories of women who have made choices we are trying so hard to protect, and for doing so much to fight the secrecy around abortion-, pregnancy-, and adoption-related experiences.

    Tomorrow we’re going to run a story by a woman who is also grappling with how give voice to her experience of abortion, and to advocate for abortion access as a woman who has had an abortion, even as she isn’t ready to be publicly open about having one. I’m interested to see what you think of it.

  • invalid-0

    I have to admit due to my health I haven’t been able to do much with the Wiki aspects of RH but I do often try to read and comment so that others can see another point of view on the subjects you all so wonderfully bring to the table. I have a mad crush on this site! I must thank you Emily for thanking me cause we all know how one can be bashed for articulating their personal experiences on the web. I honor you guys for your courage as well in reporting and do what the mainstream media will not do sadly. Please keep up the good work and I will keep commenting and fighting the good fight in the comment sections! I will also keep you all up to date about the ground work we are doing here in WV. Peace!

  • invalid-0

    great article! :)
    comprehensive science based sex education 4eva

  • invalid-0

    I was in highschool not too long ago and I distinctly remember the prospect of pregnancy being something of a nightmare. Granted, I was attending a wealthy school in an upper-middle class neighborhood that had also just received millions of dollars to sell only coke products to us. We had a version of abstinence-only education, contraception was discussed but the discussion was limited to its failure rates. And, even though the vast majority of us were heading for college (being children of college grads or children of those who had done well despite not going to college), several young Women did become pregnant including some of my friends.
    In no way do I remember unintended pregnancy as being something cool, hip, or anything other than an enormous impediment to realizing my goals and dreams. Was this because of the socioeconomic environment I was living in? Or have teenager’s perceptions really changed that much in the intervening years? Has anyone surveyed teens about their attitudes regarding unintended pregnancy and early childbirth?
    The most ironic thing about this, for me, is that I did come from an area where an early, unintended pregnancy would not have been the end of my world unlike other teens. Several of my friends had a child at the end of highschool and because of their parents wealth and their large extended families, they were able to make it work out.
    I realize that this is not the reality that most teens are facing so I’m really surprised that they, knowing their own reality, would think everything is going to turn up roses and kittens. Basically, I’d really like to see this issue explored more in depth where people actually ask young people how they view their situation, if they’re delusional in believing that the fairytale is going to come true for them, and if this leads them to riskier sexual behavior.
    The problem that I am having with reports about teen pregnancy is that most of them assume that young Women are either stupid or delusional. I’m still wondering if that is factually true or not. It wasn’t true a few years ago when I was in highschool.

  • invalid-0

    Will you post views from the other side?

  • invalid-0

    Seriously, what other side is there to this discussion? What was reported are facts, not opinions regarding teen pregnancy or opinions on what teens should do in the event of an unintended pregnancy. There is no “other side” to the FACTS that young Women who give birth as teens more often than not do not continue their education and tend to live in poverty depedent either on their family or on the government. There is no other side to this. It is fact.
    Unless you are going to tell a story about how early childbearing worked for you, there is no other side. The vast majority of young Women giving birth each year are not like Bristol Palin or Jamie Lynn Spears. Those two young Women are wealthy. They will not have to make the sacrifices that others do.