With the debate raging about free contraception for women and their teenage daughters, inevitably the conclusion is that irresponsible teenager girls are making poor decisions. Why do they get pregnant? That’s the easy part – teens not using contraception, of course. Why teenage pregnancy is an intractable problem is a much more complex question.
Will free contraception prevent some teenage pregnancies? Undoubtedly, more than 80% of teen pregnancies are unintended.
However targeting beneficiaries might be counterproductive because what appears crucial as well as free or low-cost contraceptives, is that “adolescents know where they can go to obtain information and services, can get there easily and are assured of receiving confidential, non-judgmental care”
To address high rates of unplanned teen pregnancies, both the biological and cultural contexts must be confronted.
A few references for the following points are:
Teen Pregnancy: The Tangled Web and the Wikipedia article on teenage pregnancy
The real mistake in ‘teen pregnancy’
The Psychological Effects of Teenage Women During Pregnancy
A regular refrain from studies of the underlying causes of teenage pregnancy is family violence and family breakdown.
1. Women who have been exposed to abuse (physical and sexual), domestic violence between parents, and family strife in childhood are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers, and the risk of becoming pregnant as a teenager increases with the number of adverse childhood experiences. Teenage girls who experience domestic violence themselves are more likely to become teen parents; a UK study found that 70% of women who gave birth in their teens had experienced adolescent domestic violence.
2. Studies have also found that boys who grow up in homes with a battered mother, or who experienced physical violence directly, were significantly more likely to impregnate a girl
3. Girls whose fathers left the family early in their lives had the highest rates of early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy. Girls whose fathers left them at a later age had a lower rate of early sexual activity, and the lowest rates are found in girls whose fathers were present throughout their childhood.
4. Foster care children are more likely than their peers to become pregnant as teenagers. With double the rate of teenage pregnancy.
5. Teenage pregnancy is also attributed to a breakdown of communication between parents and child and also to inadequate parental supervision
6. Low educational, training and occupational expectations have been pinpointed as risk factors.
7. Teens exposed to the most sexual content on TV are twice as likely as teens watching less of this material to become pregnant before they reach age 20.
It’s also worth noting that it’s adults who contribute most often to the other half of the teenage mother equation.
About two-thirds of births to teenage girls in the United States are fathered by adult men age 20 or older. The Guttmacher Institute reports that over 40% of mothers aged 15–17 had sexual partners three to five years older and almost one in five had partners six or more years older. A 1990 study of births to California teens reported that the younger the mother, the greater the age gap with her male partner. In the UK 72% of jointly registered births to women under the age of 20, the father is over the age of 20, with almost 1 in 4 being over 25
Meanwhile UK studies show there is little evidence to support the common belief that teenage mothers become pregnant to get benefits, welfare, and council housing. Most knew little about housing or financial aid before they got pregnant and what they thought they knew often turned out to be wrong.
The outcomes of teenage pregnancy can vary. Teenage girls who are pregnant or who are mothers are more likely to commit suicide than girls who aren’t pregnant or mothers. The belief that lives are blighted is pervasive. When I was a pregnant teenager the ‘that’s it her life is ruined’ refrain was sung over and over again by judgemental relatives and friends disappeared, none of them recognising issues 1 to 6 above might have been linked to early mothering. My life wasn’t ruined, like Paula Bennett I achieved educationally and this is not unusual. Just as some women from deprived backgrounds do well, women from deprived backgrounds who were also teenage mothers do just as well, or poorly, as others. It isn’t babies that blight young lives “Comparing teenage mothers with other girls with similarly deprived social-economic profiles, bad school experiences and low educational aspirations, the difference in their respective life chances was negligible”.
A study in 2001 found that women who gave birth during their teens completed secondary-level schooling 10–12% as often as those who didn’t, and pursued post-secondary education 14–29% as often as women who waited until age 30 to have children. Teenage parents with family and community support, good social services and good childcare are more likely to continue their education and have improved job prospects. (Credit where credit is due for Paula Bennett belatedly recognising the importance of childcare subsidies and educational assistance).
Teenage mothers may not be the burden on society that they are commonly portrayed as, teenage motherhood may actually make economic sense for young women with less money, some research suggests. For instance, long-term studies by Duke economist V. Joseph Hotz and colleagues, published in 2005, found that by age 35, former teen mothers had earned more in income, paid more in taxes, were substantially less likely to live in poverty and collected less in public assistance than similarly poor women who waited until their 20s to have babies.
My belief, and I’m not alone in this, is that babies unexpectedly give some young women a purpose in life; an an understanding of unconditional love and someone to strive for, in fact turning around lives blighted by the failure of adults – family and authority – to provide that. Deal with relative deprivation and family dysfunction and maybe, just maybe, the teenage parenting statistics for boys and girls might improve.