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We Need An Attitude Change: Policies Must Support, Not Stigmatize Young Mothers

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As we soon welcome Women's Equality Day we can celebrate some real progress for young women's health, like recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows teen birth rates are at historic lows. For Latinas, the teen birth rate declined by 9 percent from 2009 to 2010. A follow-up report in May 2012 links the fall to increased usage of highly effective methods of birth control, which is now easier to access thanks to the Affordable Care Act. This is news worth celebrating, even as we recognize the work that still needs to be done because Latinas trail their white peers in sexual health outcomes.

Advocating for better access to effective contraception and sex education is a crucial part of the reproductive justice movement. But when we talk about equality for all women, we need to be sure that the interests of young women are also included -- including Latinas who choose to be young mothers. And that means also pushing for policies and support mechanisms that allow women the right to have healthy pregnancies, at the time they decide is right for them.

The current discourse surrounding young motherhood is both stigmatizing and insensitive, and too often focuses on young women of color and Latinas in particular. It presents young motherhood itself as the problem, the cause of some sort of intergenerational socioeconomic disparities. As the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health's white paper on Latinas and sexual health demonstrate, the real problems are poverty, lack of access to timely and high-quality health care services, and lack of access to comprehensive and culturally competent health and sexuality education. As a society, we need to support young Latinas who choose to be mothers and also acknowledge that the real cause for concern is not the young mother herself -- it's the structural barriers to her success and the disparities she and her children face as a result.

The conversation about young motherhood doesn't reflect the realities of young Latina lives, and it needs to change. Mainstream conversations often cite poorer infant health outcomes for young moms and infants, without mentioning that the majority of births occur when teens are 18 or 19 and health outcomes are the same as those of women in their twenties. And despite the fact that most studies show that Latinas do not have sex more often than white women, Latinas have significantly lower rates of contraceptive use. I don't believe this is because more Latinas simply prefer not to use birth control. It's because Latinas face social and economic inequalities, like lack of health insurance coverage, that make it difficult or impossible to access contraception and use it consistently. Research has shown that cost of contraception is often the biggest barrier to its consistent use, and this reality is heightened for low-income Latinas. Discussions about teen pregnancy, educational attainment and poverty tend to link young motherhood to less education and lower earnings, without taking into account the many barriers that Latinas face in trying to access higher education and higher-paying jobs.

As an organization that advocates for reproductive health and justice, we support many policies that address teen pregnancy -- comprehensive sexuality education, contraception without expensive co-pays, and the expansion of public programs that support reproductive health, like the recent Medicaid expansion and funding for community health centers provided for under the Affordable Care Act. And we support any initiative that expands options for young women, particularly low-income women.

But policies that address young motherhood must target the root causes of health inequities for Latinas and provide young women with options that support, not stigmatize their choices. NLIRH is proud to support the critical work of Young Women United (YWU) in New Mexico that is lifting up the experiences of real women who are young parents in an authentic way to advance policy change. August 25th marks the first-ever New Mexico Day of Recognition of Young Parents, thanks in no small part to the amazing work of YWU. Other states should take lead in honoring, rather than stigmatizing, the young families that seek equal opportunity to thrive in this country. That kind of progress will definitely be worth celebrating.