In the News

Latina Teen Pregnancy Surveys Should Avoid Blame

Monday, June 1, 2009
Silvia Henriquez
RH Reality Check

A recent opinion survey makes a good attempt to identify the social and cultural dynamics that may lie behind the high rate of pregnancy among U.S.-based Latina teens. Existing efforts to curb teen pregnancy miss the mark for many Latinos, and more investment like this is needed to identify better messages and programs. Unfortunately, the limitations found in this type of study lead to more questions than answers, and the accompanying analysis leaves itself exposed to the potential for scapegoating - rather than helping - Latino teens and their families.

Survey results reveal that, similar to other racial and ethnic groups, Latino teens are most impacted by their parents when it comes to decisions about sexual activity. Further, Latino teens are not getting enough information about contraception from parents, and believe that their parents are not sure how to discuss sex with them. Most of these views are consistent with those obtained from parents and teens in other demographic groups, according to past polls. Exploring how historical socioeconomic disparities affect the way Latino teens and their parents discuss sexuality topics would have perhaps yielded richer results. For example, the study reports 43% of Latino teens don't get information about contraceptives from their parents, but doesn't ask whether parents have the tools necessary to do this effectively or at all. Over 25 percent of U.S. Latino adults lack access to a regular health provider and health-related information.

Information about Latina teen pregnancy and childbirth should be presented in a way that enables the public to understand the exact dimension and context of the issue. Data should illustrate to what degree sexuality health and planned reproduction is being exercised by Latino teens, but also by non-Latino youth. It is a fact that young Latinas share the highest birthrate among all groups (83/1000), but teen childbirth among other minorities is also high. Also, the birthrate among 15-to-19-year-olds across all ethnic groups rose 1.4% from 2006 to 2007, and more births were also reported among women in their 20s, 30s and 40s and older unmarried women. High childbirth rates are not exclusive to Latino adolescents; yet, when data are presented without comparative analysis, it is easy to single them out as the only group with a high rate. The incomplete picture stigmatizes young Latinas as sexually irresponsible.

Most studies focusing on Latina teen pregnancy call for culturally competent education and prevention programs, and we couldn't agree more. One-size-fits-all approaches to sexuality education have consistently failed to resonate with Latinas' cultural values. Motherhood at any stage of life is a value embraced by many Latinos. Instead of focusing on the importance of planning and preparing for the real-life expectations, joys and challenges of motherhood, most current prevention efforts inundate Latino teens with fear-inflicting messages that portray childbearing as a negative life event, one that kills dreams and opportunities. Moreover, there is often a conflation between ‘pregnancy' and ‘childbirth,' ignoring termination - a crucial option that could be available to young women.

Teen pregnancy should not be the only focus of studies aimed at understanding the reproductive health of Latino teens. The same lack of access to medical care, appropriate information and prevention programs that leave Latino teens without the tools to plan for pregnancy also generates other important issues, including sexually transmitted infections, which must be addressed with equal urgency in the national conversation led by the media, as well through appropriate legislation.

Additionally, fair reporting of research findings is necessary to avoid myopic news reports and biased perceptions toward Latinos. Currently, many media reports tend to present facts about Latina teen pregnancy in scandalous language, subtly portraying Hispanic childbirth as an epidemic that must be stopped. Information about pregnancy rates is often presented in the context of increased poverty, minority population growth and even undocumented immigration. While individual statistics are not prejudiced in themselves, combining them into negative reports to imply association can feed existing xenophobic attitudes toward Latinos and even foster new ones.

We must be careful not isolate teen pregnancy as the only issue affecting Latinas and Latinas only. Their sexuality is shaped by a multiple of socioeconomic realities and unique cultural aspects. Survey studies on the subject should accurately reflect that.