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Is Teen Pregnancy Really Such A Problem?

Teen Pregnancy. It’s a touchy subject. When teen (and teen-trending adult) retailer Forever 21 launched its new maternity line, they were accused of encouraging teens to get pregnant, to the point where CNN confronted them on air.  Teen pregnancy is discouraged on billboards, posters, public service announcements. It’s just common sense, right? Kierra Johnson’s piece in the Huffington Post suggests it might not be. Or, at least, that teen pregnancy is not the real epidemic. She says it’s part of a bigger problem, one that has to do with lack of information and respect for people’s abilities to make their own choices — adults and teens alike.

To me, the idea of being a pregnant teen sounds hellish. But then again, one of the best kids I know was the product of a high school pregnancy. Granted, her parents are amazing and her dad played an uncharacteristically primary role. I am certainly not suggesting that getting pregnant when you’re a teenager is a good idea. And I don’t think Kierra Johnson thinks so, either. Still, it happens. Teens have sex. Accidents happen. And it’s interesting to think about ways we might support young parents instead of shaming them. Especially in light of all this hubbub about women waiting too long to get pregnant and rolling the dice with their fertility.

As Babble founder Rufus Griscom points out, “15-year-olds are biologically ready to father and mother children and start their own homes. Attempting to keep adolescents who are wired for procreation and independence as abstinent dependents is much like treating a wolf like a poodle — it doesn’t work. Once again we are parenting against the grain of our evolutionary environments.” Our culture is obviously not built around the idea of adolescence as a good time for parenthood and, all things considered, clearly, it’s not ideal within the current model.  But as this young writer points out, our ways of dealing with this are simply not working. (Bristol Palin’s abstinence education campaign runs pretty thin when her pregnancy has made her a celebrity.) She suggests that teens should be given the full gamut of information so they can make educated choices. I’ve always been a big supporter of open sex education for young people, so this piece strikes a particular chord with me.

There are some interesting things going on: In Wisconsin, a new “Birds and Bees” text line is being launched to  anonymously answer teens’ questions about sex. Quick, quiet and (relatively) private, it’s easy to imagine how this could be useful. But I think it would have to be pretty immediate to be really effective. A clear, trustworthy “YOU CAN GET PREGNANT AT ANY TIME IN YOUR CYCLE, USE PROTECTION” on the screen, for example, might be just the speed bump a teen needs in the heat of the moment. And even as famous pregnant teens are glamorized in magazines, shows like MTV’s Sixteen And Pregnant are helping to show the sometimes grim reality of non-celebrity teen pregnancy.

It’s not just teens who make mistakes about sex and pregnancy. I know lots of smart, educated, fully grown adults who got pregnant accidentally.  But when it happens to teens, they’re derailed before they’ve picked up any speed, often wreaking havoc on their families as well as their futures. But I agree with the HuffPost writer. Teen pregnancy is a problem in itself, but it’s really a symptom of a larger, more systemic problem in our culture. If we don’t educate people about what sex is and how to prevent pregnancy (apart from the pipe dream of universal abstinence) not much is going to change. Not to beat a nonexistent horse, but if being a parent was able to be more integrated into our other responsibilities — through better, more available childcare and parent-friendly policies — pregnancies, teen and otherwise, would be less traumatic for everyone.

Photo: Polina Sergeva/flickr

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