Each year in the U.S. almost one million teenagers become pregnant--at enormous costs to themselves, their children, and society. While the facts are clear, the issues of teenage pregnancy are complicated by our conflicting attitudes and behaviors. Talk of sex fills the airwaves; younger and younger girls are portrayed as sex objects; and sex is used to sell everything from clothing to news. Yet we are shocked at the rising numbers of teens who are sexually active. If we are truly concerned about the welfare of babies, children and adolescents, we must move beyond the moral panic and denial that so often distort the discussion. Designing effective solutions will require the thoughtful separation of fact, assumption and wishful thinking and an honest acknowledgment that much is still not fully understood about the causes of teenage pregnancy.
Cause or Effect? The burdens of early childbearing on disadvantaged teens are undeniable. Trying to untangle the factors which contribute to teenage pregnancy from its effects, however, leads to a "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" dilemma. Educational failure, poverty, unemployment and low self-esteem are understood to be negative outcomes of early childbearing. These circumstances also contribute to the likelihood of teen pregnancy. For example, recent studies suggest that most adolescent mothers have already dropped out of school before they become pregnant. On the other hand, adolescents still enrolled in school when they give birth are as likely to graduate as their peers. It is not clear how well the adolescents with the most problems would have fared in the future even without early parenthood. Trends in nonmarital childbearing. It may surprise some to learn that the teen birth rate was 50% higher in 1957 than it is now. Today's widespread concern over teenage pregnancy may have less to do with actual numbers and more to do with the growing percentage of teen mothers who are unmarried. Teens who have babies outside of marriage fit within a broader nationwide trend--unmarried women of all ages are having babies in increasing numbers. Births to single teens actually account for a smaller percentage of all nonmarital births than twenty years ago. Economic forces. In the 1950s when men with little education could find well-paid jobs, young people married if a pregnancy occurred. The loss of those jobs makes marriage less attractive today--an effect that can be seen on teens of all races. In 1955, for example, only 6% of white teenage childbearing occurred outside of marriage; today it is 42%. Economics may also be responsible for the lower percentage of poor adolescents who terminate their pregnancies, since Medicaid policies in most states do not pay for abortions, but do pay for services related to childbirth. Motivation. The Alan Guttmacher Institute states that "while sexual activity among teenagers of all income levels is now common, having a baby is not. Adolescent childbearing is heavily concentrated among poor and low-income teenagers, most of whom are unmarried." While low-income youths may not intend to have a baby, they may not be sufficiently motivated to avoid pregnancy. Without a prize beckoning from the future--a good job, financial independence and marriage--young people from low income backgrounds may have little incentive to delay childbearing. Mixed Messages. The American popular culture glorifies sex and ignores responsibility. Beginning in early childhood, young people are bombarded with sexual messages. At the same time, puritanical attitudes restrict the availability of resources and frank discussions about sex. Other Western nations with similar levels of adolescent sexual activity have much lower rates of adolescent pregnancy than the U.S. In countries with straightforward attitudes about sex, teens get more consistent messages, clearer information and greater access to contraception and abortion. Risk...
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