Policies to Curb Latina Teen Pregnancies Have Failed

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.

Are the nation’s efforts to curb Latina teen pregnancy actually making young Latinas more vulnerable?

Vanessa,* age 19, watched President Obama’s recent education address to
students while holding her infant son and sitting with her niece Liz,*
age 13.  A few weeks earlier, Vanessa had become one of the growing
number of Latina teen moms in the United States, surviving on her
fiancé’s minimum wage job at Target and temporarily postponing a
college education. What are the country’s leaders telling Vanessa about
her socioeconomic future as a young mom? What are they telling Liz?

Vanessa’s story is quite common: Latina teens give birth at a rate
more than twice that of white teens. Latinos have a much lower high
school and college graduate rate compared to white teens. The millions
poured into programs aimed at curbing the Latina teen pregnancy rate
and urging Latinos to pursue higher education have been largely
ineffective. In fact, some of these campaigns may have inadvertently
worsened the situation by misplacing blame and perpetuating bias.
Instead of stigmatizing Vanessa, policy experts ought to be looking at
the complex structural barriers that offer her starkly different
choices than many of her teen counterparts.

Myths — rather than realities — have too often guided the public
discourse about Latinas and pregnancy. Latina teens don’t have sex more
often than their white counterparts and most desire a college
education. In addition, despite the demonization of immigrants in
recent health care debates, most Latina teen moms are not immigrants.
So what is underneath the startling pregnancy statistics?

Compared to white teens, Latina teens have higher pregnancy rates
because they use birth control much less often and reject abortion much
more often. Religion and family influence are very important factors,
but for sexually active Latina teens these are not the only or even
most relevant obstacles to birth control usage. For many Latinas, the
top barriers to birth control usage are much more mundane:
transportation, lack of health insurance or cash for health services,
confusing and intimidating immigration regulation for households with a
combination of citizens and non-citizens, and lack of guidance about
available services. When teen pregnancy prevention programs and
messages ignore these obstacles, Latinas become distanced from sex
education efforts.

Sex education programs often tell teens that delaying parenthood
until they finish high school and college will bring them some version
of the American dream: a good job, economic security, family stability.
The troubling reality is that for Latinas this promise comes true for
only a limited few. Recent research confirms that Latina teen mothers
have roughly the same socioeconomic circumstances at age 30 as those
Latina teens who delay childbirth. The unfortunate reality is that
access to college and the opportunities that emerge as a result is
starkly different for Latina teens and white teens.

Latinas ought to be given the support they need to finish high
school and attend college. But it’s simply not enough to lecture Latina
teens about prioritizing education; we must make real investments in
tearing down barriers to educational opportunities and health care. We
must find better ways to support young parents like Vanessa who wish to
pursue college. Unfortunately too often the opposite happens. For
example, legislation recently proposed to address teen pregnancy would
have given a financial reward to college graduates who agreed to mentor
youth living in poverty, but would not have provided additional
resources to the young women. Shouldn’t the youth living in poverty get
the federal dollars to help them gain access to birth control and other
resources that might give young women the power to plan their families
the way they want them, rather than giving the money to college

Worsening this situation is the silly practice of one-size-fits-all
messaging for all Latina teens. A thirteen-year-old sexually active
teen poses very different concerns than a 19-year-old sexually active
teen. In fact, about 44 percent of teen mothers are adults like Vanessa when
they give birth — 18 or 19 years old — and they have needs that are
different than those of young teens like Liz. Messages that treat teen
pregnancy as an urgent health risk serve to stigmatize young adult
mothers rather than empower teens to live healthy lives.

It may be politically expedient to treat high Latina teen pregnancy
rates as the problem to be solved rather than the result of social
inequities — but it isn’t likely to be effective. Many reproductive
health advocates choose to focus narrowly on birth control messaging
and avoid the related issues of immigration status, poverty,
educational disparities and discrimination. But the result of this
narrow vision has so far proved disastrous. Politicians need to get to
the tough work of breaking down structural barriers to health care and
education, and re-focus their efforts on giving young women the
knowledge, access and power to plan their families in the ways that
work best for them.

In a nutshell, if we can clamp down on the ways that Vanessa and Liz
are stigmatized, and ramp up measures that expand access to education
and health care, our entire society wins.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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  • cmarie

    So what course of action would you suggest… specifically?

  • paul-bradford

    It’s simply not enough to lecture Latina teens about prioritizing education; we must make real investments in tearing down barriers to educational opportunities and health care. We must find better ways to support young parents like Vanessa who wish to pursue college.


    I’m all for tearing down barriers but I’m at a loss to figure out what you think is involved in tearing those barriers down.  You have come out against a program designed to have college educated young people mentor the poor.  I know, from personal experience, that these programs work to help kids stay in school and to succeed. 


    Do you agree with me that kids who have a strong personal relationship with somebody who has been academically successful have an improved chance for their own success?


    I certainly want the Vanessas of the world to go to college, but I’m certain that more person-to-person support for kids and teens will mean that fewer Vanessas will get pregnant before they’ve completed their education. 


    Paul Bradford


    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • jbgruver

    Church Dogma has it that you cannot have Family planning because the more babies you have the more souls there are to go to Heaven. Even though the babies are barely kept fed and clothed and, more often than not, there is little or no money for school, especially in countries were there is no public or state provided K-12 education. The Church’s obsession with the hereafter, or after life, does not do justice to the quality of life as you pass through it. This obsession with the hereafter is a Dark Ages frame of reference or time window. Food and clothing are one thing, what about vertical mobility through Education? If a Father can barely feed himself, let alone a Wife and a bunch of kids, what are the children’s chances of rising out of the "Cycle of Poverty." If powerful social influences and influencing people advocate social mores and policies that severely handicap the impoverished from breaking out of the cycle of poverty, the cycle is only further entrenched. I am not against being concerned about the "Quality" of life after death, if such a thing does exist. What about the horrible hopelessness and pain and suffering of those with no way out of their lifestyle except through a funeral pyre or a pine box or white linen, etcetera? What if they want a better life for themselves as well as their future generations, and all they get is something like "Forget about that nonsense and only pay attention to your hour of death!" A statement like that is, in and of itself, nonsense!  My understanding is that a Woman’s chances of death from, or during, childbirth goes up 50% after the fifth child.  Correct me if I am wrong.  I cannot fathom that  members of our Government think that unwanted pregnancies; unwanted children; back alley abortions; do-it-yourself abortions [Google DIY Abortions and you will be inundated with instructions and where to purchase drugs, Vacuum equipment, Dillitation and Curretage utensils, etcetera!] are all a wonderful and glorius state of affairs!  You can deny it all you want, "but," abortion was here from the beginning of time, it is here now, it will be here as long as we are around, no matter what "your" Bible says or the Laws say!  Trying to stop it is wishful thinking at best, no matter what your furver or zeal produces.  I do not want blood on my hands from driving it back underground.


    The lack of access to family planning is a major, if not the major, cause of world wide poverty!

  • drodriguez15

    It was quite interesting reading about several of the sensitive issues surrounding teen pregnancies you touch on and how this has impacted the Latina population in specific. An interesting point you discuss is the fact that one reason teens are encouraged to wait to get pregnant is so they have a better chance of achieving the American Dream, but that methodology might not work for most Latina teens because their reality can be drastically different than the average American teenager. You stated that, Latina teen mothers have about “the same socioeconomic circumstances at age 30 as those Latinas who delay childbirth.” So this shows that having such broad prevention methods might not reach out to all populations. It is important to look at specific populations to target for prevention efforts. Even within the Latina population there are differences. Implementing prevention programs that employ different prevention methods would be an excellent beginning to facilitate a better educated, more aware, teenage population. But a question I am considering is how will this fit into the new health care reform of President Barack Obama, or how should, if at all, the government’s involvement be determined to help fund or run these programs? Rather than letting this issue be kept as a low priority, it should be made aware to the entire population. And instead of scorning these teen mothers, we should have resources to aid them in this life altering stage of their lives as well as provide services for teen pregnancy prevention. Like you have argued, we should not stigmatize teen mothers, but instead “empower teens to live healthy lives.” If parents are more prepared to raise their children, which is less likely the case for teen parents, we can improve quality of life. So if we increase access and education, we will benefit our society to ensure a better and brighter future for our children.


    Thank you,

    Daniela Rodriguez