The United States has the highest rates of pregnancy, abortion, and childbirth among teenagers in industrialized nations, a fact that results in considerable social anxiety and controversy. Teen pregnancy is defined as pregnancy among girls and young women age 19 years and younger. A phrase that is used to draw attention to the problems of this behavior is children having children. Teen pregnancy leads to adolescents raising children before they are emotionally or financially ready to do so. The rate of teen pregnancy has steadily decreased since reaching an all-time high in the 1990s. The rates have fallen because teenagers today have shown an increased use of longacting birth control and slight decreases in sexual activity.
Today fewer American young people get married as teens, compared with young people 50 years ago. They do not, however, avoid sexual relationships until marriage. Because they are involved in premarital sexual relations, often with little planning for pregnancy and for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), teens become parents early. This has been a factor in the increase in single-mother families. There are different reasons why teenage girls become pregnant. Teenage girls are likely to become pregnant if they were sexually abused at a young age, in need of someone to love them, or planned for motherhood. Other pregnancies were unintended, because most teens tend to be poorly prepared with contraception and tend to underestimate their chances of conceiving.
Twenty-nine million adolescents are sexually active in the nation, and the number is increasing each year. More than 850,000 teenage girls will become pregnant each year, and close to 500,000 of them will give birth. Estimates are that three-fourths of these pregnancies are unintended. About 90 to 95 percent of teens who carry the pregnancy to term will keep their babies. Surprisingly, the nation’s highest teen birth rate occurred in 1957, with 96.3 births per 1,000 teenage girls, compared to 41.9 births per 1,000 teenage girls in 2006. These numbers seem to suggest that teen parenting was more of a problem in the past. That is misleading, however. Most of the births from the 1950s and 1960s were to older teens who were married to their partners. These teens, who married young and had high fertility rates, were the parents of the baby boom generation. Economic instability, a hallmark of teen parenting today, was ameliorated in the 1950s by a strong economy and the likelihood of finding a family-wage job with only a high school education. Because so-called good jobs were available to those with only a high school education, young marriage and childbearing was encouraged by the social circumstances. Also, there was a strong propaganda machine extolling the virtues of stay-at-home mothers. There was a stigma on girls who were out-of-wedlock mothers, so much so that many pregnant teens were sent to live with relatives until the birth, when the infant was then placed for adoption. The alternative was a so-called shotgun wedding in which the couple was persuaded to marry before the pregnancy began to show. In the 1950s and 1960s, more than half of the women who conceived while they were single married before the child was born.
Today, the story is a very different one. The overwhelming majority of teen pregnancies are among unmarried teens. Eighty percent of teenage births occur outside of a marital relationship, and most of the girls have no intention of marrying the father of the child. As the social stigma of teen pregnancy has decreased dramatically over the last 30 years, so has the pressure to marry in order to legitimize a birth. Pregnant teens attend school alongside nonpregnant teens. This is quite a contrast from the days when pregnant girls were forced to drop out or were sent to the reform school for students with behavior problems so that they would not corrupt the nonpregnant girls. The fi – nancial circumstances of today’s teen mothers are often quite desperate, and many end up seeking public assistance funds. Education beyond high school has become essential for constructing a middle-class life, but many teen mothers experience a truncated educational history, quite unlike what those teen mothers of 50 to 60 years ago experienced when their husbands had high-paying jobs.
A brief discussion of the trends in teen birth in the last 20 years can help us to understand why teen pregnancy has been described as such a problem. In 1986, the birth rate among 15- to 19-year-old women was 50 births per 1,000, but by 1991 that rate had climbed 24 percent to 62 per 1,000. However, over the next five years, the rate fell to 54 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 (Darroch and Singh 1999). In 2005, the teen birth rate in the United States was 40 births per 1,000 teenage girls. Most data are concerned with the 15- to 19-year-old group because they have higher rates and constitute a much larger proportion of the births to teen mothers. Today research shows that pregnancies among young girls ages 10 to 14 have fallen to their lowest level in the past decade. Th us, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, politicians, families, religious leaders, and educators began to worry about the increases in teenage births and asked what solutions would help turn the trends around.
Race and Ethnicity
Racial and ethnic groups in the United States do not all have the same teen pregnancy and birth rates. Fertility rates among American women are different because of religion, age, and socioeconomic status. During the 1970s and 1980s, African American women had the highest fertility rate, Hispanics had the second highest, and white women had the lowest. Today, however, it is Hispanic women with the highest rate, followed by African Americans and whites. The rate of teen births among blacks has dropped more dramatically than the rates of any other ethnic group. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2005, the birth rate for Hispanic teens was 82 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. Comparable data for black and non-Hispanic whites were 61 per 1,000 and 26 per 1,000, respectively. The group with the lowest teen birth rate was Asian and Pacific Islander teens, at 17 per 1,000.
The reasons that birth rates among races differ are because of socioeconomic factors, family structure, and perceived future options. Risk factors for teen pregnancy include living in rural areas and inner cities, where many minority groups are clustered. White adolescent girls are less likely than black or Hispanic girls to carry their pregnancies to term. Because of their economic status and parental pressure, many will end their pregnancies through abortion. Often minority women, particularly those on public assistance, cannot afford abortion, and legislation has changed so that government funds will not cover elective abortion.
Likewise, education and religion can play a role in teen births. Girls who perceive few educational or employment opportunities (usually minority girls) may be more interested in becoming mothers. Pregnancy and mothering may be a way to avoid going to work in low-paying, dead-end jobs. At least they can have control in one aspect of their lives. This is more likely to be the case for black girls. One study in Alabama found more than 20 percent of black teens between the ages of 14 and 18 wished that they were pregnant. For Hispanics, socioeconomic status is also important. However, Roman Catholicism, which disapproves of both birth control and abortion, also plays a role. Hispanic culture places a high value on children, particularly in their ability to contribute to the family group.
With the changing patterns of teen pregnancy described above and concerns over the long-term consequences for society from children being reared by teen parents or single parents, calls for intervention have increased. Specifically, prior to the welfare reform of 1996, there was increasing concern over public funds supporting these families and frequent unsubstantiated charges that teens, and other poor single mothers, were having more babies just to increase their welfare benefits. In 1992, the U.S. government realized the importance of considering the experiences of teenage mothers and began pregnancy prevention programs in earnest. These programs, which largely target girls under the age of 16, were designed not only to discourage sexual activity but to educate young people about safer sexual practices. They generally worked off the assumption that all teen pregnancies were unwanted or unintended. While that does seem to be the majority experience, it does not fully describe teen childbearing.
Optimists predicted that these types of programs would reduce the numbers of teen pregnancies by half and increase the provision of sex education and contraceptive services for young people. It did, however, become an issue with parents as well as religiously conservative groups. While there are no definitive data, there is a concern that sex education will encourage teenagers to have sex by making them think more sexual thoughts or providing the sense that adults condone teenage sexual experimentation. Some school districts were concerned about parental reaction should they institute the federal program. Education proponents argued that if teenagers are not educated about sex, they will not know how to protect themselves, and the result will be pregnancy or an STD. Teenagers are curious and they are going to experiment regardless of whether they have had sex education. Proponents argued that another reason why teenagers have sex is peer pressure, and comprehensive sexuality education could help counter that.
Beginning with the George H. W. Bush administration, these education programs focused heavily on teaching young people about abstaining from sexual behavior until marriage. While this drew praise from conservative religious and political groups, it was not well received by those who work directly with teens, suggesting that it was too naive of an approach given the saturation of U.S. media with sexual images. Critical of the emphasis on abstinence of most government programs, sexuality researcher Ira Reiss (1991) has said on many occasions that vows of abstinence break far more easily than do condoms.
The government has not been the only organization working on the issue of teen pregnancy. In 1996, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a nonprofit private nonpartisan organization, was founded with the sole goal of reducing teen pregnancy rates by 30 percent in 10 years. Through grassroots work and media influence, it has been largely successful. Despite the decreases in teen pregnancy in recent years, the problems that teen mothers and their children face are daunting.
Problems with Teen Pregnancy
Politicians, educators, clergy, and the general public debate whether teen pregnancy is a serious problem in the United States. The negative consequences of teen pregnancy and parenting have been well documented by public and private agencies, including the well-regarded Annie E. Casey Foundation. The areas of concern include the children, the mothers, and society as a whole. Advocates stress that teen pregnancy is a serious problem, because teen pregnancy is linked to many negative circumstances for both teen parents and their children.
Early childbearing puts teen girls at risk for health problems, both mentally and physically. Teens are at higher risk of death than older women during delivery; two to four times higher by some estimates. Young girls are faced with medical problems such as anemia, hemorrhage, and high blood pressure. These complications are particularly likely in the 10- to 14-year-old age group. Sexually active teens also have high rates of STD transmission, some of which can be passed on to their infants at birth. Infection during pregnancy can cause health problems with the fetus and miscarriage.
Primarily due to inadequate nutrition, adolescents are three times more likely to have a baby with low birth weight or to be delivered prematurely. Infants born to teenage mothers, then, are at greater risk for developmental and physical problems that require special medical care. The younger the teen is, the higher the chance that her baby will die in the first year of life.
Most teenage girls do not admit to being sexually active. When a young girl becomes pregnant, she may not tell anyone because she is in denial or is scared. When a teen does not reveal that she is pregnant, she puts herself and the fetus in serious danger. Teens are less likely to receive prenatal care when they hide their pregnancies from their family. Early and adequate prenatal care, preferably through a program that specializes in teenage pregnancies, ensures a healthier baby. The mother’s and baby’s health can depend on how mature the young woman is about keeping her doctor appointments and eating healthy. Sometimes, due to insurance limits or government policies, unmarried teens can be denied funding from the government or insurers, making safe pregnancies and deliveries difficult.
Adolescent mothers are more prone to smoke, use drugs, or consume alcohol during pregnancies than are older mothers. Their children are at increased risk of growth delay and dependence on chemical substances from the drug use. Adolescents’ children are often in need of speech therapy, because they are behind in development. Teen mothers are less prepared for the tasks of child rearing, know less about child development, and are more likely to be depressed than other mothers.
Adolescent mothers and their children are faced with the same effects as most singlemother families. Single-mother families are one parent raising the children and taking on the role of mother and father. Coupled with teen mothers’ greater chances of living in poverty and having a special-needs child, the tasks of parenting can seem overwhelming. This leads to high levels of stress. Additionally, studies indicate that these young women can have difficulty forming stable intimate relationships later. These concerns are compounded when the teen has inadequate social support.
One of the largest concerns regarding teen pregnancy is the poverty status of the teens and babies. Pregnancy reduces the likelihood of completing one’s education, which— because the less educated a person is, the harder it is to have a good job with benefits— leads to poverty. Around 40 percent of teen mothers receive their high school diplomas. Low academic achievement is both a cause and consequence of teen pregnancy. Estimates suggest that about one-half of all teen moms will receive welfare payments within five years of the birth of their first child. This percentage increases to three-quarters when only unmarried teen mothers are considered.
Teenage childbearing places both the teen mother and her child at risk for low educational attainment. Her children will look at her as a role model; if she got pregnant early and dropped out of school, they may feel they should, too. Women who grow up in poor families are more likely to have been the off spring of a teen pregnancy. The children of teen mothers are more likely to be living in poor neighborhoods where schools may be underfunded, are unsafe, or are of low quality, thus not preparing them for the future. The children of teen mothers, perhaps due to diminished opportunities, can suffer from depression and low self-esteem.
The support of family and friends is very helpful and much needed in the circumstance of teen pregnancy. Family and friends might make it possible for the teen to stay in school and continue her education. They can encourage adequate nutrition and prenatal health care. It is clear that there are substantial societal costs from teen pregnancies in the form of lost human capital and public welfare outlays, but support for the teen can assist her in positive parenting and active economic participation.
Teenagers may become sexually active for a number of reasons. Depending on how mature their bodies are, whether they are spending time around sexually active people, or how much television viewing and magazine reading they do, they may develop attitudes consistent with the group. This is why it is not uncommon for friends to become teen mothers and for sisters to have similar early pregnancy experiences. The social network is important in the outcomes. Teens are more at risk of becoming pregnant if they grow up in poverty, use alcohol or drugs, have no support from their family, have fewer friends, and have little interest or involvement in school activities.
There are differences in how families respond to the pregnancy of a teen daughter. More white girls live independently with their child after the birth, suggesting that their parents may be less accepting of such an outcome. Unfortunately, the children of teens are disproportionately represented among the ranks of children who are abused and neglected, particularly when compared with the children of single mothers in their twenties. The children of teen mothers have a greater chance of themselves becoming teen parents, participating in delinquent acts, and being incarcerated.
Positives of Teen Pregnancy
While it seems that all of the news is bad regarding teen parenting and that more problems are created than solved, some positives can be found in the experiences of teens. Some teens might actually benefit from early childbearing. A small number of teens planned to have their children. These teens are not likely to abuse or neglect their children. They usually finish school and go on to successfully support themselves and their families. These are the teens who are most likely to be married, either before or after the birth, to the father of the child.
General stereotypes of teen mothers describe them as single, poor heads of families, but most teen mothers age 15 to 19 are not living independently with their children. The vast majority lives with relatives, including parents and, sometimes, husbands. By ethnicity, it is whites who are most likely to be living independently and with husbands. African American and Mexican American teens are most likely to be living with family members. This coresidence can provide significant support, both emotionally and financially. Through child care and other family-provided services, young mothers may be able to finish school and gain solid employment. In this way, pregnancy and mothering may only delay, not deny, their pursuit of successful adult lives. Some economists have indicated that black teens gain less of an economic advantage by waiting to have children than do white teens. The common stereotype of irresponsible teens who behave irrationally by becoming pregnant may need to be reconsidered when it is a response to deficient and discriminatory opportunities.
In some cases, teen pregnancy can be a way out of a troubled home life. Teens suggest that the true benefits of childbearing are having someone to love and someone who loves them. Sometimes the birth of a child can help them to heal scars from their own childhood. Some teens have suggested that they have used pregnancy as a way to leave an abusive home.
Controversies of Teen Pregnancy
Is Teen Pregnancy a Problem?
Although the number of teen pregnancies reached a historic low in 2004, this does not take the focus away from the situation, because teenage girls are still getting pregnant. Politicians, columnists, educators, researchers, and communities continue to argue that it is a serious problem. Almost every bad situation in society is blamed on teen pregnancies. Single parenting, poverty, delinquent children, school failure, drug abuse, child abuse, and crime have all pointed to teen pregnancy and birth as contributing factors. It seems that politicians use these data to raise the alarm in society and draw the public to their campaigns, often with the suggestion that ending poverty will be possible if teen pregnancies stop. Teen pregnancy can contribute to a given young person’s chances of being poor, but it does not cause poverty. Many of these girls were living in poverty before getting pregnant. Consequently, teen pregnancy may just be the scapegoat for other social problems.
Sociologist Kristin Luker (1996) argues that adolescent girls are placed in the middle of a conflict between political factions that debate the issue of abstinence-only sex education compared with more comprehensive approaches. She argues that the phenomenon of teen pregnancy has been misidentified. Specifically, she indicates that teen pregnancies do not occur only in the United States. Although our rates might be higher, the problem is not uniquely ours. However, the racial and social class distribution of teen births causes many in the United States to see them as a problem. Significantly, the rates have been declining and are not out of control largely due to improved contraceptive use, particularly of long-acting contraception that does not require daily administration. Given that rates of sexual activity have increased over the same period that teen birth rates have declined, the pregnancy rates could be significantly higher than they are. Young people are physically mature at early ages today—the consequence of better nutrition and overall health—and development of their sexuality accompanies that. Luker also reminds us that the teen birth rate is not new; the mothers of the baby boom often began their child rearing in their late teens.
One of the interesting co-issues of teen pregnancy is why teen mothers are treated so much worse than are teen fathers. Young women face many more negative attributions than do young men. The message to young women seems to be, “we are okay with you exploring your sexuality; just don’t get pregnant while doing so.” Given that it takes both partners for conception, one wonders when the fathers will receive comparable scrutiny.
Should Pregnant Teens Marry the Fathers of Their Babies?
A popular suggestion for decreasing the negative effects of adolescent childbearing is for teens to marry the fathers of their children. They already receive pressure to declare the father’s identity in order to receive state child support payments through public assistance. In the past, teens were more likely to marry before the birth. Today, however, only about 20 percent of teens marry the child’s father before the birth.
When teens are encouraged to and actually get married, their children have a better prospect for success later in life simply because they will have a two-parent family. The two-parent family has many documented advantages over single-parent families. Greater financial stability and more complete socialization of children are cited as reasons why teens should marry. Teens might even hear the suggestion that they have already made one mistake by becoming pregnant; they don’t want to make another by failing to provide legitimacy for the child. Teen marriages are actually more stable when children are present, but, on the whole, teen marriages are particularly prone to end in divorce.
Marrying, then, might be the bigger mistake. Most teenage girls do not get pregnant by a teenage boy but by an older man. Data indicate that more than 50 percent of the fathers of teen mothers’ babies are between the ages of 20 and 24, around 30 percent of the fathers are adolescents themselves, and 15 percent are 25 or older. When teen mothers do marry, they tend to become pregnant again very quickly.
The suggestion that teens should marry the fathers of their babies fails to consider the long-term issues. The higher rates of dissolution were mentioned above. In both the United States and abroad, premarital pregnancy is correlated with a higher rate of divorce. When men are at least five years older or younger than their wives, they are more likely to divorce. There are also maturity and readiness factors to consider. Lack of coping skills, inadequate preparation for marriage, and fewer life experiences contribute to marital dissatisfaction. There also might be less support from the couple’s friends and family for the marriage, which decreases the social pressure for the couple to stay together.
Is Adoption the Answer?
In the current climate of decreased negativity toward nonmarital childbearing, it seems unlikely that large numbers of teens will surrender their babies for adoption. With the stigma of teen parenting has significantly decreased, they may face more negativity for giving the child up for someone else to rear. It has always been the case that more white girls than black girls placed their children for adoption, and that pattern holds today.
However, the rapid decline in numbers of healthy white infants available via adoption has changed the adoption industry and pushed more families to adopt internationally. Adoption may be the answer in that it permits the teen to get on with her life and allows her child the opportunity to have a two-parent family. Those teens who place their infants for adoption tend to be older, white, have higher educational goals, and are more likely to complete additional job training. They are more likely than teens who rear their children themselves to delay marriage and to live in higher-income households. Certainly there is initial sorrow and regret over the decision to relinquish a child, but these tend to be short-term experiences.
Teenage mothers and their children are at risk of difficulty in the areas of social environment, education, and economics. The major focus on teen parents is on the socioeconomic outcomes of the mother. Literature on teenage mothers continues to show negative long-term consequences for early childbearing, including consistently low levels of education and a greater dependency on welfare. In some cases, people tend to see teen parents as uneducated, intolerant, impatient, insensitive, irritable, and prone to use both verbal and physical punishment. There is evidence that they are more likely than other parents to abuse their children. Economic success greatly depends on continuing school and not having more children. Older literature describes teen mothers as neglectful and unintelligent, but as research is updated, there are more positive effects of teenage parenting for the women and children involved.
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- Annie E. Casey Foundation, http://www.aecf.org/
- Centers for Disease Control, “Preventing Teen Pregnancy in the US.” http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/pdf/2011-04-vitalsigns.pdf
- Darrock, J. E., and S. Singh, “Why Is Teenage Pregnancy Declining? The Roles of Abstinence, Sexual Activity, and Contraceptive Use.” In Occasional Report, no. 1. New York: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999.
- Davis, Deborah, You Look Too Young to Be a Mom: Teen Mothers on Love, Learning, and Success. New York: Perigee, 2004.
- Furstenberg, Frank F., Destinies of the Disadvantaged: The Politics of Teenage Childbearing. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2007.
- Gottfried, Ted, Teen Fathers Today. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2001.
- Hoff man, Saul D., and Rebecca A. Maynard, Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2008.
- Luker, Kristin, Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
- National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/
- Planned Parenthood Federation of America, http://www.plannedparenthood.org/
- Reiss, Ira L., “Sexual Pluralism: Ending America’s Sexual Crisis,” SEICUS Report 19 (1991): 5–9.
- Williams-Wheeler, Dorrie, The Unplanned Pregnancy Book for Teens and College Students. Virginia Beach, VA: Sparkledoll Productions, 2004.