A brave, new conversation about teen pregnancy prevention

by Monica Faulkner

Most people agree that we should try to prevent teen pregnancy. What we get bogged down in are the details: Do we teach kids about birth control? Or do we teach kids not to have sex until they are married? In honor of teen pregnancy prevention day, I propose a new conversation, a braver conversation in which we tackle poverty and inequality.

The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any industrialized country, and Texas consistently has one of the top three teen pregnancy rates in the country. While our overall teen pregnancy rate has been declining, the rate of births to unmarried mothers, particularly young women between the ages of 18 and 25, is increasing. Slightly over 40 percent of births in the United States are to unmarried mothers.

The increasing numbers of non-marital births is not a judgment statement about marriage or the ability of single mothers to raise children. Rather, what is striking is that young unmarried mothers consistently report wanting a partner. However, the promise of marriage and relationship stability is so far removed from their reality that having a child at an early age becomes their entry into adulthood.

For several years, I have worked with a team of youth-serving professionals in the Austin area to complete a needs assessment of teen pregnancy prevention services in Travis County. Our report found some of what we expected. We expected youths to tell us that they wanted information earlier in their lives, and we expected parents to be a little uncomfortable talking about sex with their children.

What we did not necessarily expect is to see such a strong theme related to entering adulthood.

Youths who participated in our focus groups told us that girls at their schools have sex. They saw girls at affluent schools as facing a stigma against teen pregnancy. Those girls are supposed to go to college and get married, so there was a strong message that pregnancy and parenthood needed to wait.

Teens at less affluent schools felt pregnancy was normalized. Once a girl is pregnant, she gets attention, services and is treated as an adult. Pregnancy is more than just having someone love you back. For girls who do not see themselves going to college or having occupational aspirations, becoming a mom may be their means of being recognized as an adult; it is an excuse to grow up.

If we want to reduce teen pregnancy, we have to look beyond the traditional discourses about sex education. We have to look at opportunities and motivations for parenthood. We can throw condoms at kids or we can do our best to scare them into not having sex. Either way, it is a losing battle until we acknowledge that young women and men living in poverty need and deserve opportunities to create a meaningful and productive adulthood. Stepping out of the ideological entrenchments of sex education debates, this is a much harder conversation about resources and inequality. It requires us to be a bit braver.