This post was written by Cindy Morand, 19, an author of RED the Book, a collection of personal essays written by 58 American teenage girls, recently released in paperback. She's studying finance at the University of Buffalo.
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As a teenager from a mixed racial background and a student of economics, as well as a first-time voter, I couldn't have asked for a more dazzling or personally relevant year in American history. It's been hard not to see progress, legacies in the making, everywhere I look.
The firsts and lessons have been indelible for young people in this country--which I came to from Mexico when I was in high school. We've seen what women and people of color can achieve, the power of the Internet as applied by an older generation to modernize grassroots activism for my generation, the consequences of many Americans trying to live lives we could not afford. But there's one issue on which we seem to be headed in a most oblivious, backward direction--return of the shotgun wedding and all.
Since when did teen pregnancy become cool? Do we really want our young people to think that they should find a high-school sweetheart, have a child, become popular as a result, and live glamorously ever after?
A little over a year ago, 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, the star of Nickelodeon's Zoe 101, announced her pregnancy; in June, she considered herself "very blessed" to have become a mother. Next, of course, was September's McCain campaign revelation that Bristol Palin, then 17 and the daughter of our would-be vice president, was five months' pregnant. She just had a baby boy, and--like it did for Jamie Lynn and in the fictional universe of Juno--I'm sure it'll work out fine for Ms. Palin (or the future Mrs. Johnston).
Passing judgment on the girl who let herself get in this way is no new prejudice in our culture. But in the past year, we seem to have shifted from considering her easy to considering her pregnancy, marriage, and mothering easy. The latest, highly public examples of pregnant teenagers make it look effortless to downright adorable--Academy Award-winning, even. She's a celebrity, she's cool, she's in control. She gets emotional and financial support from her family. She gets engaged. (Or, as Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin so brilliantly put it: "I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers.") Finishing school? Not an issue.
We've initiated a dangerous new member of the breakfast club: the no-problem pregnant teenager.
And she's far from the good fictional fun of the prom queen or the gossip girl, the nerd or even the burnout. She doesn't get the chance to leave it all behind with high-school graduation. In fact, according to a 2008 study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 26 percent of high-school dropouts did so to become a parent. We all know the obstacles these girls face from there--and alone, as nearly 80 percent of fathers do not marry their baby's teen mother. It rarely ends with the great Bristol-Levi love story. Almost 80 percent of unmarried teen mothers receive welfare, at an annual cost to the US government of more than $8 million. The report also finds that dropouts "are twice as likely as high school graduates to slip into poverty from one year to the next."
Now, as far as years and poverty go, this one and the next are as terrifying as any my generation has seen. Plus, the teen birth rate in the U.S. is showing an uptick--a 3 percent increase between 2005 and 2006--for the first time after a 15-year decline.
The economic climate, combined with our highly romanticized idea of the proud and pregnant teenager, create the perfect storm for a teen-pregnancy crisis. Not-for-profits that provide counseling, family planning, and medical care are hurting for funding, and I can't think of a more strictly out-of-pocket expense for this demographic than contraception--probably not something many young people got from their parents as a holiday gift.
It is particularly disturbing to me--a 19-year-old with a French-Mexican background--to see girls in the States not respecting their bodies. Recent data shows that 53 percent of Latina teens will become pregnant at least once before they turn 20. Let's just say that if it happened to me, the family scenario would not play out with all of us arms around each other on a national stage. I knew one girl in my private Catholic school back in Mexico who got pregnant; her wealthy and well known parents kicked her out of the house. To get pregnant as a teen and without being married was seen as a sin, and many neighbors claimed that the devil had gotten into the family's house.
In this country, soon after Jamie Lynn announced her pregnancy, my cousin, who had just turned 13, asked me if having sex and getting pregnant at her age was bad. I responded with the story of a girl who was in my New York public high-school class. We were both ambitious and working to the best of our abilities to get into competitive colleges. As we started our senior year, though, I noticed she wasn't showing up for A.P. Calculus. A few days later, I saw her out of school and saw that she was pregnant. "We miss you in math class!" I told her. She said, sadly, "I have no time for that stuff anymore."
The new administration has to put that decision, education or motherhood, in the past for this country's young people. From the inaugural stage on forward, our president-elect has to make teen pregnancy a highly visible, priority issue--and not in the Bristol Palin way. The first step is to publicly acknowledge teen pregnancy as a problem and that marriage doesn't count as a solution. It's a matter of painting a true picture of what pregnancy is for an average teenager in the U.S. today.
In 2007, Illinois Senator Barack Obama sponsored the Communities of Color Teen Pregnancy Prevention Act, a bill "to prevent the incidence of unintended pregnancies...among teens in racial or ethnic minority or immigrant communities." I hope Obama continues his commitment to the issue. I hope he presents American girls--like Sasha and Malia--with positive role models and a sense of possibility. After all, look what he's accomplished in the past nine months.