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Teen Pregnancy: A Complex Dialogue

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Linda Lausell Bryant, Ph.D., Executive Director

We have all seen the posters decrying teen pregnancy on the streets and in the subway stations here in New York. We have followed the conversation in the media about the ads also. Though politicization, controversy and blame fill many of the articles, we all seem to agree preventing teen pregnancy is a priority. The question of how best to reach young people with a prevention message, though, has not been answered clearly.

Teen pregnancy is complex. Inwood House has become an expert on the complexity of the issue -- on both human and systemic levels. We have found teen pregnancy is best addressed through a multi-faceted collaborative approach developed by government, non-profit, community-based institutions and teens. Programs and campaigns should use education, resources, awareness of the greater systemic drivers of teen pregnancy, support and self-esteem-building as vital tools in reducing teen pregnancy and helping pregnant teens overcome the challenges they face. Fortunately, the City's total efforts at reducing teen pregnancy are more comprehensive than the current ad campaign reflects.

The question of how to use public messages to reach young people in a way that prevents teen pregnancy is as complex as the causes of teen pregnancy itself. The City's Teen Pregnancy campaign focuses on one aspect of the issue which is teens not thinking through the consequences of their decisions. There is no doubt some teen pregnancies are the result of adolescent decision-making. Teens are not yet adults and don't make decisions with the same capacities adults can. The campaign does not address, however, many other pressing issues contributing to teen pregnancy, like poverty, violence and abuse. Far too many teen moms have been victims of sexual abuse -- an issue often overlooked when we talk about teen pregnancy. Many young women are involved in violent relationships where they don't have the choice to decide whether or not to become pregnant. Other young parents seek to create their own families because they do not have families who can care for them.

Inwood House has worked on the issue of teen pregnancy for 183 years. In 1830 we were pioneers, helping New York City's young mothers overcome the statistical odds they would be poor and destitute. In the 1800s, most of our program participants were teen mothers who had recently immigrated to New York from Europe. Now, we work throughout New York City, serving thousands of public school students with pregnancy prevention programs, as well providing comprehensive care for teen parents who are homeless, have run away or are in foster care.

Inwood House has shown teens succeed when they are empowered through programs that acknowledge and respect them. Programs that build upon teens' personal strengths, recognize their developmental stage and their personal circumstances are what help them flourish and overcome tough odds. Our work is grounded in respect and partnership with the very youth we serve. Our programs focus on empowering young people and equipping them to have successful futures -- no matter their circumstances.

Our staff include expert clinicians and practitioners who posses great understanding of teen sexuality and youth empowerment. As an agency, we recognize teen pregnancy is a result of many factors. As an expert in this field Inwood House:

  • Believes the key to preventing teen pregnancy lies in providing tools, education, access to healthcare and support to empower teens.
  • Prioritizes work that has a balanced approach to engaging young men and women, helps them build healthy relationships & provides education that includes information about healthy sexuality.
  • Recognizes the links between teen pregnancy and cycles of poverty and works to empower teens in all aspects of their life to overcome the challenges of poverty, and other systemic causes of teen pregnancy.
  • Supports initiatives that aim to provide tools to community members, young people and their families to make choices that help them create lives that make them proud.
  • Supports and empowers teens who do become parents by working with both teen mothers and teen fathers to ensure their parenting, educational and professional success.
  • Is dedicated to enhancing the dialogue about teen pregnancy prevention to ensure more voices are heard, young people are empowered and facts are contextualized to support effective programs, reduced rates of pregnancy and respect for members of our collective community.

We congratulate the City on its multifaceted efforts and progress in reducing teen pregnancy rates and we are proud of the contributions Inwood House and our community-based organization colleagues have made toward this progress. We know there is much more work to do to. Whatever the limitations of the current ad campaign, people are talking. We need to continue the dialogue with young people, not just about them. To progress toward our shared goal of prevention, we should focus our collaborative conversations on best ways to engage young people in solutions to improve their lives and benefit our City for the long term.