"What is wrong with this picture?" is the theme of an article in Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section, written by Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Welsh, a frequent writer and observer of social trends among teens in his community and the school system in which he works, expresses his dismay and discomfort with the fact that the number of adolescents becoming parents continues to grow. He writes:
Last I heard, teen pregnancy is still a major concern in this country
— teenage mothers are less likely to finish school and more likely to
live in poverty; their children are more likely to have difficulties in
school and with the law; and on and on.
[Yet in] our school of 2,211 students, we now have at least 70 girls who are soon-to-be or already mothers.
Welsh points out that the high school, local government and local non-profits all seem to be doing the "right thing."
On the surface, Alexandria seems to be striving to stem teen pregnancy.
Every high school student is required to take a "family life" course
that teaches about birth control, sexually transmitted disease and teen
pregnancy. The Adolescent Health Center, a clinic providing birth
control, was built a few blocks from the school. The city-run Campaign
on Adolescent Pregnancy sponsors workshops for parents and teens.
Despite these efforts, Welsh and his colleagues see a growing number of girls, primarily lower-income students, becoming pregnant.
Once a girl gets pregnant, though, the school leaps in to do everything for her. The idea is to keep the girls in school, let them get their diplomas and help them avoid the kind of fate described earlier.
He simultaneously lauds these efforts to help teens faced with profoundly life-changing circumstances and yet feels torn.
I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and I want the best for my
students and to help them succeed in every way possible. I know that
these girls need support. But I can’t help thinking we’re going at this all wrong.
At T.C. Williams and in other schools and communities throughout the country, says Welsh, teen pregnancy no longer carries the shame it once did, but is celebrated and even planned by some adolescent girls and boys who see having a baby as a sign of "achievement." In one Massachusetts school last summer, a group of high school girls created a pact to get pregnant at the same time. At T.C. Williams, there are reproductive and sexual health services, sex education and other relevant programs available, all of which implicitly acknowledge that teens will more likely than not become sexually active before they are married, and seek to ensure they can practice safer sex and avoid unintended pregnancy…but these efforts do not seem to make a difference among those whose intention is in fact to become pregnant.
Yet, as Welsh points out, whatever the perceived short-term gains for adolescents who do become pregnant, the end result for teen moms, even with community resources at hand, is a dimmer economic future for themselves and their children, as they are less likely to finish school, go to college, and land jobs that will provide a secure future. And there is a broader economic and social cost incurred by helping support teen parents and their children: a study by National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy notes that teen childbearing nationwide cost taxpayers $9.1 billion in 2004.
Welsh asks what many might seem to be the "politically incorrect" question: Does the lack of shame and censure around teen pregnancy and the extensive support given these teens–additional resources for food and nutrition, an in-school day-care center, help getting to doctors’ appointments–actually encourage teens to get pregnant "on purpose?"
In short, are we enabling this? And should we be doing less?
The answer to this, in my mind, is right there in Welsh’s article. It is not the services and and programs seeking to prevent adverse outcomes of unprotected sex (unintended pregnancy, infection) that lead teens to become pregnant, as many opponents of comprehensive education and services suggest. Rather, it is the low level of self-esteem, low level of economic and social attainment within the communities from which these teens are coming, and the lack of "vision of a different future" that so clearly contributes to the desire for a baby to create an "identity" and to have someone–the school, the community–help support you in some way, as no other validation is available.
Teen motherhood at T.C. Williams is…
…mostly a class issue — and given Alexandria’s
demographics, that means the teen mothers are virtually all
lower-income blacks and Hispanics with few financial or other
resources. Moreover, the number of Hispanic girls with babies is double
the number of black girls, which also reflects a national trend.
According to Sarah Brown,
director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned
Pregnancy, Hispanics now have the highest rate of teen pregnancy and
births of any racial or ethnic group in the country.
This story illustrates the realities evident throughout the reproductive and sexual health field, and with respect to public health strategies that ignore the social, economic, and cultural roots of sex and reproduction. Services and programs are necessary but not sufficient aspects of any strategy to improve health and to promote a climate in which people have free choices, but can make those choices based not only on the immediate present, but an imagined–and different or better–future for themselves and their families.
The obstacles to such a future are evident even among those who strive to avoid becoming pregnant, as did Cynthia Quinteros, who was diligently using birth control but got pregnant when family circumstances forced her to miss a clinic appointment and who now spends 14 hours per day caring for her child, going to school, studying and working at night.
But these same teens also likely have at least some of the answers to Welsh’s questions. When asked about the situation of teen pregnancy in her community, Quinteros states:
"I feel that the community is afraid to talk about all the girls who
are getting pregnant," she says. "Once you get pregnant, they do
everything for you, but they ought to be doing all they can do to show
girls how difficult their lives will be if they have a baby. I love
Angel, but if I didn’t have him I wouldn’t have to work after school, I
could study more, I could be a normal teenager.