Teen Pregnancy Prevention and Reproductive Justice: What’s the Real Problem?

The end of May brings an end to Teen Pregnancy Prevention month, a designation designed to showcase an entire movement that has been formed around the idea that preventing young motherhood is one of the most important adolescent health issues of our time. Statistics are bandied about regarding high school drop-out rates, dependency on public benefits, and increased rates of poverty for women who become parents when they are young. But what’s the real problem? As reproductive health and justice advocates, can we really stand behind the sentiment that motherhood should ever prevent anyone’s success?

These were the kinds of questions that my colleagues and I at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health began asking ourselves a few years back, and we knew right away what our answer had to be. As part of the reproductive justice community, we share a set of values that we believe will allow all persons to live their lives freely and in good health; we value sexual freedom, integrity of the body and personal autonomy, and we reject any system of reproductive coercion. Because of these values, we believe it is important to change both the discourse surrounding young motherhood and the policies meant to address the issues young mothers face.

Stigamtizing and Insensitive

When we were first looking to tackle this issue, we saw that the way young motherhood was most often talked about was both stigmatizing and insensitive, presenting young motherhood itself as a problem. Most importantly for us, we saw that much of this presentation focused on young women of color in general and Latina young women in particular, who have much higher birth rates as adolescents than the general population.

Though most studies do not show Latinas reporting having sex more often than white women, Latinas have significantly lower rates of contraceptive use. We don’t think this disparity is based on simple preference though; rather, we believe it is closely connected to social and economic inequity. In fact, Latinas have the lowest rate of health insurance coverage; lower than women of any other racial or ethnic group.

While much of the discourse vilifying young mothers focuses on health, rarely if ever is access to quality, affordable health care mentioned, instead citing poorer health outcomes for young moms and their infants. And though poor infant health outcomes are more likely for mothers 14 and under, the overwhelming majority of births to women in their teens occur at 18 or 19—when health outcomes are the same as those of women in their 20s.

Mainstream teen pregnancy prevention efforts also cite lower educational achievement for young mothers, and here again we believe that there is much more behind these numbers. When looking at Latinas and higher education, it is imperative to take into account two important variables: poverty and immigration. Latinas are disproportionately poor, and higher education is increasingly out of reach due to cost. Though there is a perception that there are many scholarships available for people of color, in fact only a very small percentage of scholarships are actually slated specifically for these communities. Latina immigrants are even more hard-pressed: in addition to being disproportionately poor, undocumented youth (or anyone with an immigration status other than legal permanent resident) are not eligible for federal financial aid, and are very rarely eligible for state aid. This means that unless these immigrant youth are able to pay for tuition out of pocket, they are not able to go to college. Most importantly, however, if young motherhood truly were the singular barrier to young women’s education, why do we so rarely see advocacy demanding child care or other services that would help these youth succeed? Why, instead of advocating for policies that meaningfully address the barriers faced by young mothers, is the answer to vilify their choice?

And It Is a Choice

It is important to note that young mothers have made a choice—when faced with a pregnancy, they chose to continue it and become parents. It must be said that sometimes it is not much of a choice at all—due to a lack of public funding for abortion, waiting periods, and parental consent and notification laws, young people’s choices are often quite limited indeed, though very rarely does the world of teen pregnancy prevention meaningfully address these issues. Still, however constrained they may have been, these choices must be both respected and supported. Young women do not loose their rights or personhood when they decide to become mothers, and should be afforded the same opportunities to lead lives as fulfilling as women who decide to parent later in their lives or decide not to parent at all. If we are indeed pro-choice, we must be that fully, and honor, respect, and support the choices that women—regardless of their age —make with their bodies.

As a reproductive health organization, we support many of the policies that are put in place to address teen pregnancy: comprehensive sexuality education, increased affordability and access to contraception, and the expansion of public programs that address reproductive health, such as Title X and Medicaid to name a few. However, we support these policies as part of a platform to increase women’s ability to make informed choices that are relevant to their lives, and not as an attempt for the state to control young women’s fertility. Additionally, we support initiatives that expand young women’s options—particularly low-income young women and young women of color—for higher education and job access, such as tuition reimbursement, loan forgiveness, and affirmative action. These policy initiatives are valid in and of themselves, but attempting to use them to steer women’s reproductive health choices to what those in power find to be socially acceptable devalues them and can create skepticism toward what would otherwise be valuable initiatives.

Target the Root Causes

Policies and programs that make substantial social and economic commitments to the reproductive health of young people are the answer. An effective approach to eliminating maternal and child health disparities impacting Latinas is not public policy targeting teen births, but rather policies targeting the root causes of health inequity for all Latinas of reproductive age, such as low income and lack of access to health care and health information. A key aspect of reproductive justice is advocating for all persons to make the reproductive decisions that they feel are best for them, and to eliminate all the systems that create barriers to these decisions being made freely.

We owe young people no less.

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