Shame From All Angles: Why Doesn’t Anyone Seem to Respect Teen Parents?

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.

In a decision based more on opinion than fact, a Nebraska Supreme Court judge ruled that a 16-year-old pregnant teen in foster care could not have the abortion she was seeking, even though she had the law on her side. The judge ruled that despite demonstrating a tremendous amount of maturity in navigating the judicial process on her own, the young woman was “too immature” to make the decision of whether or not to have an abortion.

While many articles about the case have pointed to the irony of being too young to make decisions, but old enough to parent, the issues at stake in this case go much deeper. In our culture and in our politics, generalizations about teenage sexuality, pregnancy, and parenting are too often used to reinforce a negative narrative and to score points.

There are obvious examples of teenage pregnancy as political fodder from anti-choice politicians. For instance, after Wendy Davis’ 13-hour filibuster against Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, it became known in the national press that Davis was a teenage mother. Gov. Rick Perry said it was “unfortunate that [Davis] hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.” Perry’s cheap shot at Davis’ personal life ignored the fact that a woman has the legal right to choose to be a mother and the human right to bodily autonomy, free from government interference, when making sexual health decisions. Further, choosing motherhood once does not negate the possibility of choosing an abortion at a later time, as most women who seek abortions are already mothers.

Anti-choice attempts to score ideological points with teen motherhood don’t stop with Gov. Perry. No target is off-limits, it seems, as anti-choice advocates have recently appropriated the stories of President Obama and Justin Bieber—both of whose mothers were teenage moms—to show, supposedly, that every “life” has potential. For the anti-choice crowd, teen pregnancy is a good thing so long as it doesn’t result in abortion, and until the moment a pregnancy results in a family that needs support to thrive.

While right-wing anti-choicers hog the spotlight when it comes to judging personal decisions, people of all political and ideological persuasions perpetuate the idea that teenage pregnancy is inherently terrible, and confuse supporting teen parents with encouraging teen pregnancy.

Even among those of us who agree people should be able to make their own sexual and reproductive decisions, we’re often on different sides when it comes to how we can best support teens’ bodily autonomy. While some advocates use tactics meant to scare teens out of having sex, others focus on health education, and a few go further to ensure support for those who are pregnant and parenting.

When a Ms. Blog writer wrote a post about the #NoTeenShame campaign, many of the commenters—ostensibly liberals, feminists, and/or progressives—were quick to sound off about teen parenthood as a terrible decision, and to argue that scaring teens about pregnancy is a good thing. For these commenters and others who think like them, it seems sexual freedom is great as long as you’re not a teen who becomes pregnant and chooses to parent.

The reality is that many curricula, discussions, and public service campaigns that seek to deter teenage sexuality and prevent teen pregnancy are rooted in shaming teenagers and depicting teen pregnancy and parenting as the worst possible outcome for a young person. More times than not, the overarching message of these efforts is that teen sexuality is bad because it leads to teen pregnancy, which leads to a dismal, unsuccessful life for you and your potential future child(ren).

By highlighting perceived “negative” narratives about teen parenthood, like the New York City Human Resources Department recently did, the people behind attention-grabbing anti-teen pregnancy campaigns and messages perpetuate a cultural narrative that shames young people for their sexuality, ensuring that policies and attitudes toward young people are slow to evolve.

More big-dollar anti-teen pregnancy campaigns will perpetuate “lost cause” stereotypes in the future. Meanwhile, many smaller nonprofits—working to combat teen pregnancy by providing information and helping parenting teens defy the statistics—have little access to money because they don’t have “real” teen pregnancy prevention campaigns (in other words, one that scare teens from having sex).

More than the challenges they face in their personal lives, it is the appropriation of teen pregnancy and parenting that cause devastating consequences for teenage families. By silencing their voices with fear, shame, and disenfranchisement, people on both sides of the choice debate erase their experiences, use them to advance their causes, or ignore their stories.

Supporting the status quo may be easy, but it’s not working.

Instead of society saying, “Didn’t you see the ads? Why didn’t you listen? It’s all your fault,” we should be wondering why decades of scare campaigns haven’t worked and start providing support rather than shame.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • JakobFabian01

    I believe we could do much more good offering love and support to teenage mothers than by making teenage girls afraid of sex. Unfortunately, a vocal minority of public bullies relishes disparaging young women in need, just as they enjoy kicking poor people when they’re down.

    The way to decrease the rate of teen pregnancy is to give girls comprehensive sexual education and to give them the self-esteem they need to make a confident and informed decision about when to have sex. I believe this demonstrably brings teen pregnancy rates down as fear mongering does not. Just compare the teen pregnancy rates of New England with those of the Deep South, and ask yourself whether shaming works so well.

    • ronwf

      I don’t think teenage girls should be afraid of having sex. I think they should be ashamed of bringing a new life into the world without the means to support it. That’s why pro-life folks don’t see a disconnect in their policies. People shouldn’t have kids unless they can support them. It’s shameful to have a child and expect the State to do so.

      • JakobFabian01

        The reason so-called pro-lifers don’t see a disconnect in their policies is because they don’t look at the harm that they do. I offered you a challenge above: “Just compare the teen pregnancy rates of New England with those of the Deep South, and ask yourself whether shaming works so well.” Would you care to accept that challenge? How precious is your ignorance to you?

      • CJ99

        This is what makes you a vengeful hypocrite. you blame all women, not the men who impregnate them. not even rapists. And yes your one of those who refuses to help that i spoke of earlier. You’re actions & attitude are truly vile.

      • Arekushieru

        Yeah, when the MAJORITY of the Pro-‘Life’ movement supports abstinence-only sex-ed and illegal contraception, then wonders why the teen pregnancy rate is so high, THEN, as the posters below said, blame the teen girls for getting pregnant, THEN make cuts to funding of programs like TANF, WIC and SNAP, THEN shame and decry them for having abortions or for raising children in untenable situations, they’re the worst fucking hypocrites to ever live.

        • CJ99

          Pro-liars (what a good description of them) are the most selfish bastards on the planet. The world does not revolve around them. If they had their way people would still think earth is the center of the universe and it’s also flat.

      • JakobFabian01

        What about the children who are born to parents who are too poor to support them? Should we let these children suffer because we disapprove of their parents’ decisions? And just how will these children benefit when we shame their parents and refuse to help them in any way?

        • ronwf

          I don’t think it would benefit children to shame their parents and refuse to help them in any way. Why do you ask? I don’t see where I proposed that.

          • JakobFabian01

            “I don’t think teenage girls should be afraid of having sex. I think they should be ashamed of bringing a new life into the world without the means to support it.” – written by “ronwf,” November 2012, earlier in this very thread.

            Since you wrote that, in a forum that teenage girls and teenage mothers themselves do read, you not only proposed shaming them if they become new mothers. You actually did it.

        • CJ99

          Those in that line of foolish thinking belive (but won’t admit) that to them the childs sole purpose is to “punish” teenagers for having sex.

  • CJ99

    Looking at that poster its just another example of the right wing fanatics applealing to rabid emotionalism over facts. Not one of them has ever lifted a finger to help a pregnant teen or their children once they’re born. Not to mention they still adamently oppose any contraception. But we can’t expect intelligence from fanatics, those are mutually exclusive, a person can be fanatical or intelligent not both.

    • ronwf

      “Not one of them has ever lifted a finger to help a pregnant teen or their children once they’re born. ”

      And you know this how? Has it never occurred to you that there are many ways to help pregnant teens or kids born in poverty without the involvement of the State? The State should be the last resort, not the first.

      • CJ99

        Has it occurred to you that your abusive BS isn’t believed?

        Indeed its long recorded in history right up to the present that organized religion has been very abusive to humanity. No church can make the claim to have geniunely have helped anyone. though liars (including yourself) continue to try.

        • Amanda Lynn Larson

          No church can make the claim to have geniunely have helped anyone. though liars (including yourself) continue to try.—

          Really? That’s blatant bs, as bad as anything the pro-lifers put out.

          • CJ99

            You “amanda” are a liar. I’ve lived my entire life in many different churches dragged through tme all by my adoptive white evangelical family. Now stop being a narcisistic shithead and leave the adults alone. Your arrogance is disgusting.

          • Amanda Lynn Larson

            You don’t speak for the entire planet. People have a range of experiences with church, some are good and some are bad and everything in between. You’re a bigot when you project experiences with your family onto the rest of the world as their ‘reality’. I know of local churches (protestant and unitarian) that get together to feed people and provide funds for medications. I know others that have done house repairs and so on and that’s just in my small community.

            If I meet one teen mom that’s abusive, do I get to say all teen moms can’t raise kids? If I have bad experiences with black people, all black men are evil? If your reasoning doesn’t work for anything else, it’s time to reevaluate.

          • CJ99

            Your idiotic “arguments” are pure fantasy. Get over yourself.

          • Amanda Lynn Larson

            That was an eloquent, well worded and factual retort. I loved the examples.

      • Jennifer Starr

        Generally the idea of ‘pro-life’ ‘help’, is to push and coerce the teen into giving the child up for adoption, preferably to a rich, white evangelical family. That’s basically the extent of their ‘help’.

  • JakobFabian01

    I agree that young boys need comprehensive sex education as much as girls. However, my point was to replace the curriculum of shame that is imposed much more strongly upon girls, especially after they become pregnant.

  • colek3

    Why are young people choosing to be parents? For crying out loud, 99.999% of women can have a kid, big freaking deal. The difference is who can support them and raise them to do something with their life other than just have another kid? While I do not think that shaming is the answer, there is something to be said for holding up an ideal that is a damn sight better than just pushing out another offspring, why do they choose this over anything else they can possibly do with their lives? Have sex all you want, I did, you just don’t have to make that into motherhood.

    • Arekushieru

      Um, excuse me? By and large they are not CHOOSING to be teen mothers. Many teens face stigmatization and shame WHETHER OR NOT they choose abortion or to become single teen mothers. AND they often have to face a lot more legal hurdles in order to OBTAIN an abortion. That doesn’t give room for a whole lot of ‘choice’, now does it?

      And you DID just blame and shame young women for being teen mothers. Teen mothers are NOT the only ones who face difficulty in supporting and raising children, which just goes to show that these are narrow-minded views that came into play ONLY when one believes they have found an easy target. Other mothers who have difficulty don’t face NEARLY as much stigmatization, and are compensated with some form of a social program. But, oh, no, when it comes to teen mothers, THEY are the problem. Ergo, the reason I called you out on shame and blame.

      Leaving aside the FACT that other women can and do raise their children (especially female children) to believe that there is nothing more to their lives than just having another kid (even if you ignore the fact that this is by and large a product of her OWN upbringing, I still think Michelle Duggar is a GREAT example of that), there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing to have another kid. But there’s the rub. When you attack specific groups of women for a NON-choice then turn around and congratulate others for making the same non-‘choice’, you are calling into question the very edicts that separate shame and blame from reward and encouragement. Specifically, you are saying that only SOME women are ‘worthy’ of full, unfettered choice. Only SOME women are worthy of freedom from the patriarchal influences that inculcate their lives. And you’re not even deciding who is and isn’t worthy based on who is least or most affected by those influences, but on whether or not you agree with the choices made by the women, THEMSELVES.

    • CJ99

      It’s nuts like who you deny them contraception and valid education beforehand and support afterwords that victimizes teen parents and then you want to blame them for being human and trying to live up to their responsibilities.