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How Can the Richest Country in the World Deal With the Issue of Teen Pregnancy?

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The rather sobering news about a rise in pregnancy rates among teenagers
for the first time since 1991 seems to have re-awakened Americans' fears
over the problem of early childbearing. According to the sociologist
Frank Furstenberg, who has studied teenage pregnancy for four decades and
recently published a book on the topic called Destinies of the
Disadvantaged: The Politics of Teen Childbearing
, this latest panic
reflects the nation's dogged denial about the role of sexuality in
adolescence.

Anyone who understands the basics of the birds and the bees knows what
will happen when boys and girls engage in unprotected sex. According to
Furstenberg, a father and grandfather himself, Americans suffer from a
puzzling wonderment when it comes to our young people and their developing
sexuality. In his book, Furstenberg offers a metaphor of driving to
describe the problem with the current view. When we prepare our young to
get behind a wheel at 15- or 16-years-old: there is intensive instruction,
careful monitoring, and, eventually, a time where young people get to
drive a car on their own, Furstenberg says. Driving is, potentially, a
far more dangerous than having sex. And yet, as Furstenberg sees it, under
the current strategy, parents rail against the inevitability of young
people's sexuality by refusing to accept it as "normal and normative." He
says, "it is as if we stand back and watch young people go out on the road
without any preparation," telling them simply: "try not to hit anything."
Such schizophrenic messages also gets reinforced in abstinence plus sexual
education programs where teenagers are advised "not to have sex," with the
proviso "to use protection if they do." Statistical trends in young
people's sexual behavior foreshadowed this increase in teen pregnancy,
since 2003, contraceptive use among adolescents actually declined while
the levels of sexual activity have remained constant.

Within the issue of teenage pregnancy is the unspoken sense that abortion
offers a way out. With more than a million abortions annually, and 50
percent of teenage pregnancies ending in pregnancy termination, the choice
to go to term and become a mother, or not, offer the two most common
"solutions" to an unplanned pregnancy for a teenager. And yet, as far as
we can see, these assorted outcomes -- abortion, adoption, or parenthood
-- appear to be powerfully structured by social realities like class, race,
poverty, and education. When a pregnancy occurs for a teenager, the girls
who are poor, not headed to college, were raised by single mothers who
were teen parents themselves, and are not white overwhelmingly opt to keep
the baby and raise a child. Women who choose abortion were raised by two
parents, come from affluent families and graduate from college. In the
end, of the thousands of girls will find themselves pregnant, overwhelmingly, young women with the most options end their pregnancies, while the poorest and most disadvantaged ones become young mothers. It is no accident, after all, that you hardly ever see college students pushing strollers with newborns on campus.

Given the growing social acceptance of young mothers and the legal access to abortion, despite the "happy ending" of the film Juno, the
reality is that adoption is a rarely considered option when pregnancy
happens among teens. A select group women, who are typically white
and socially conservative, will choose this path because of their
opposition to abortion and the fact that there are thousands of families
eager to adopt healthy white infants. Many poor, young women of color
inhabit a social world where early childbearing is common and the
reality of foster care system filled with non-white infants in need of
families convinces them that children raised on public assistance will
be better off than ones trapped in the foster care system. In the
flurry of headlines following the news of Jamie Lynn Spears' impending
motherhood, are we shocked because Ms. Spears had sex with her boyfriend
or that she had sex and failed to use contraception effectively, or that
she did not have an abortion?

So how exactly can the richest country in the world deal with the issue of teen pregnancy? For Furstenberg, the first step is to abandon the
moralistic messages of the don't- have- sex -but-if-you-do-be careful
campaigns. Accept the fact that most young people will have sexual
experiences and prepare them for this future. This does not simply mean
handing out rainbow-colored condoms at schools; this also requires
empowering young men and women to talk about sex with their partners so
they can negotiate boundaries. The subtext of the most effective
programs encourages young people to wait by teaching teenagers to build
sex into healthy, loving, and enduring relationships. Indeed, in the
Netherlands, where sexuality is seen as a natural and expected part of
late adolescence, abortion rates are lower and the age at first sexual
initiation is older than here in the United States where the federal
government calls on teenagers to avoid sex until marriage. When you
look at the rest of the world where teenage childbearing has become a
problem of another time, it is maddening to see policymakers and parents
in the United States so perplexed. After studying teenage childbearing
for 40 years, Furstenberg has to wonder how much longer it will take for
us to realize how "we are doing in the name of protecting our young
people" has been such an abject failure.